Since Zimbabwe’s adoption of the current constitution, there has been much talk about how citizens of Zimbabwe can have access to copies of the document. Being in possession of a legal document is one thing, but understanding and knowing what it means for you as a citizen of a country is quite another.
Enter The Law Hub. Rumbidzai Dube is the brains behind Zimbabwe’s first Law Hub. She has since been joined by a team of other lawyers who assist with other roles in content creation and sharing. The new Law Hub aims to simplify the law for ordinary citizens who are not well-versed with legal jargon. The hub was launched this month and is directed at helping Zimbabweans defend their rights and protect themselves, contribute substantively to policy dialogue, hold institutions of state accountable and also to learn about their responsibilities.
The centrepiece of the new Law Hub is a new website which was launched yesterday. The website contains amongst other information, nearly three dozen examinations of common scenarios that citizens often face in navigating potential legal conflicts. Topics include marriage, rape, defamation, parliament, sex work, lawyering, legal lingo and how to engage a political representative. New topics will be added to the Law Hub website on a bi-weekly basis at a minimum. The briefs will be accompanied by interactive quizzes and podcasts. Twitter and Facebook will also be used to share posts to a wider audience.
Although currently based in Gambia, I managed to speak with Rumbidzai Dube to get some insight about the new Law Hub and find out what inspired the idea:
Daphne Jena: This is the first time we are hearing about a law hub, can you please tell us what it is?
Rumbidzai Dube: The law hub is a space that simplifies and explains Zimbabwean law and other laws that affect Zimbabweans. What we are trying to do is to make the law as simple as possible and as relatable as possible for ordinary citizens in Zimbabwe. So we produce legal briefs which are very simplified and we are disseminating these mainly through our new website, The Law Hub and also through our social media platforms on Twitter and Facebook. The aim is to increase public, legal education and rights literacy because we understand the text of the law, rights and obligations; the rights on the part of citizens and obligations on the part of state actors, policy makers and other institutions. As long as citizens do not understand actually what the law provides, they cannot demand those rights and they cannot hold those institutions accountable for non-performance of the duties that are provided for under the law. The aim of the hub is to increase citizens’ awareness of what the law actually says and what rights they can derive from it and how they can hold state institutions accountable.
DJ: How did the idea come about and who is involved in the project?
RD: So the idea of The Law Hub is something that I have been promoting from a very long time from as far back as I’d say, 2006. Actually, when I was a student at the Law Faculty of the University of Zimbabwe, I worked with Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) . Part of what we used to do at ZWLA was to give legal advice and legal outreach to raise awareness on rights and the provisions of the law, but specifically focusing on women around the county. But I realised that the work we were doing was very useful and powerful and was assisting a lot of people to understand how they could protect themselves and how the law could protect them. The outreach was limited because we were targeting specific areas within our reach and within our resources and they were also programme-specific so for as long as that programme was funded, then the outreach would continue, but the moment the money finished, the outreach would end. And there were also limitations increasingly because of the laws that limit association, assembly and the reach of civil society organisations to marginalised communities. So over time I thought, let me think of a way of trying to bridge the gaps that exist because it is really important for people to understand the law and to understand how it affects them.
So I initially started off blogging on my blog, but that was a mixture of simplification of the law and about women’s rights and a lot more on political issues and international relations. So I thought, why not create something much more specific, something that is much more focused on the law and the simplification of the law. So I came together with a couple other guys: Susan Manyere who has been a lawyer for a very long time, a human rights lawyer at Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and Nqobani Nyathi who is also a human rights lawyer but he focuses more on sexual rights. We brainstormed and that’s how the hub was born. Basically that’s the team that’s involved in the Hub.
DJ: So it’s just the three of you?
RD: For now yes it’s just the three of us. But the idea is to crowd source (if I may put it that way), articles on the law from law students, from legal practitioners in different fields (law lectures), from anyone who has worked in a specific area and is very well-versed with the legal implications in that particular area. So that’s how we are proceeding.
DJ: I understand all three of you are in different locations at the moment?
RD: Yes, Nqobani is in Zimbabwe as well as Susan, but I am based in the Gambia at the moment.
DJ: What other concerns or issues is the hub addressing, besides simplifying the law? Does it have a specific target group?
RD: The target group of The Law hub is as broad as Zimbabweans are.What we are doing is simplifying laws – Zimbabweans laws specifically – and other laws that affect Zimbabweans. When I say other laws that affect Zimbabweans I mean, international law and regional instruments and how they relate to Zimbabweans. So, the topics that we are covering are as broad as corporate law, understanding the courts, knowing what the criminal justice system works like, knowing issues around environmental law, family law, human rights, labour law. It’s broad, it’s as broad as this because we see the hub not as something that is starting today and ending in the next five years because this is a life-long project about citizens understanding the laws of the country as they evolve, understanding the history from which they are derived. We realised that there is nothing similar to what we are trying to do out there so why limit ourselves?
DJ: So you are actually the first the first people to come up with something like this in Zimbabwe?
RD: Yes, I’ve not seen anyone trying to simplify Zimbabwean laws in the manner that we are doing on the scale that we intend to do it. They are so many sites that provide access to law, and when I say access, I mean portals of education that have cases. There is the Zimbabwe Legal Institute (ZIMLII), the Zimbabwe Legal Resources Foundation , there is Kubatana . There are so many spaces where you will find the Acts of Parliament and where you can find the cases from the courts, but then to actually explain what the Act is saying, what specific provisions of the Act mean to a person on a day-to-day basis, how it applies in their life. I‘ve not seen that being done anywhere else and I have done quite a bit of research on that.
DJ: What will be the actual name of the website?
RD: The website will be called The Law Hub and the idea is that it’s a hub where you can find out about the law in the manner that you’ll understand. It’s about presenting the legal terms in a manner that people can understand.
DJ: Will the website be in indigenous languages as well, if yes which ones?
RD: Because we are working with limited resources, the site will be in English only. We are self-funded (I had forgotten to say that) so we have paid for everything ourselves, from the people who designed the site, the people who have designed the logo, the pictures that we are using on the site and the hosting of the website. We have been creating time to produce the content ourselves, as a self-funded project. So within the limited resources that we have, no we will not be translating to other languages. But the idea going forward (and we have already been making plans towards that), is to produce podcasts and these podcasts will be broadcast on our site. These podcasts are what we are planning for the future – not currently. Currently it (the website) will be in English only.
DJ: Will the Podcasts be in other languages?
RD: Yes the podcasts will probably be in other languages and they will be available on the site and we are also in discussions with community radio stations to be able to broadcast those podcasts.
DJ: What is the difference between understanding the law and accessing the law? From my understanding, your site will be addressing both?
RD: Accessing the law is simply being able to access the documents that provide the law. For instance, accessing statutes, accessing decisions of the courts, accessing international instruments, accessing books that explain the law, right? But understanding the law is about knowing what the statute is actually saying and how it applies to you, how it would relate to you in the circumstances by which it provides. It is about knowing what a particular judgement means. So for instance, people can access the Supreme Court decision on unfair labour practice – like the most recent cases of dismissal. It can be available and I saw it published in the Herald and it is publicly available. But being publicly available does not mean that people actually understand what that that decision is saying, because the language is complicated – the reasoning of the law is not very easy to follow. So our role is to try and break that down to say this is the decision and this is what the decision actually means and this is how it’s going to apply to people from now on in their day-to-day lives. That’s the difference between what we are doing and what already exists.
DJ: From your findings, what is the level of access and understanding the law among Zimbabweans, particularly women?
RD: Working for the ZWLA for the period that I did and also in the work that I did with Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) which involved a lot of field trips and going into different communities, I saw that there is very little understanding of the law. For simple things like marriage even. You ask someone “Are you married?” and they say, “Yes” and you ask “Do you know the type of marriage that you are in?” and they say, “I’m not sure what you mean but all I know is that he paid lobola”. People don’t even know that that marriage, in terms of the law, is not marriage. The level to which people do not understand what the law actually provides and how this is a risk in their lives. Yes some of them will know that there is Chapter 37 and some of them will know that there is ‘muchato wekwamudzviti’ which is customary marriage. But to understand what each marriage means and how it will affect them in relation to other issues such as inheritance, such as division of matrimonial property in cases of divorce separation, you know, there is very little understanding of the law. This is what organisations like ZWLA that offer legal education have been trying to do. They have been trying to bridge that gap. But they can only reach so many people. They can only go as far as the areas that their limitations are limited to. What we are trying to do is to create this space where at any given point someone who needs to know something can continuously come and refresh their memory and continuously understand what the law says.
DJ: Do you have plans to have an offline project as well?
RD: Yes. In the future, plans are there for us to extend the project. One of the things that we are were mainly concerned about are sustainability. Because I worked in civil society for a very long time and I understand the limitations of depending on donor funding. That can limit what you want to do and where you want to go. One of the concerns that I have always had and the other guys as well about the sustainability of the hub is how we are going to sustain it so that we can extend our projects to other areas where people might not necessarily have access to the internet. The problem is funding, but our sustainability plan involves increasing the relevance of the hub to such an extent that it can be an advertising space. We hope to get funds out of advertising and I guess one of the limitations right now is that I am currently based outside the country. Part of the plan is to create training programmes for state institutions because one the problems that I have and have encountered many times is the limited knowledge amongst the people who are working in state departments in certain aspects of the law. In 2013, I actually did training for members of state security on human trafficking on how trafficking happens and how it is involved, how to detect it, how to differentiate it from smuggling at the border and also on how to improve our internal security strategy and things like that. Then, I was a volunteer around raising awareness on human trafficking because I see this as a potential source of income and also as a potential source of access to communities. This is because if you work with people who trust the other work that we do in other sectors, then it will improve our ability to reach other areas that civil society will normally not be able to reach.
Rumbidzai Dube, is a Zimbabwean-trained lawyer presently serving with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, supported by a team of Zimbabwean lawyers, law students, national and international volunteers with extensive experience in Zimbabwean affairs, media and the field of legal affairs. Previously she has worked at the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) and the Research Advocacy Unit (RAU).
Main image taken from www.facebook.com/thelawhub