South Africa has some of the worst rates of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in the world. In August 2022, the South African Police Service reported a 13% increase in reported cases of sexual abuse and rape between 2017/18 and 2021/22 and a 52% increase in the killings of women between the first quarters of 2021 and 2022.
In 2020, Commonwealth Alumnus Lee-Ann Germanos co-founded non-profit organisation (NPO), The Embrace Project, which raises awareness of the prevalence and causes of GBVF in South Africa and seeks to drive reform to the legislation surrounding GBVF. The Project also sells art to raise funds to support organisations combatting GBVF.
Prior to her Commonwealth Scholarship, Lee-Anne had gained a position in South Africa’s constitutional court as a law clerk. This was a prestigious one-year position during which she assisted constitutional court judges with judgements. Constitutional court judgements are the equivalent of law and in this position Lee-Anne was involved in cases centred on human rights and those related to the Bill of Human Rights.
During this time, she also led the Venice Commission, an international advisory body which convenes clerks in apex courts around the world in order to exchange legal knowledge on the application of different country constitutions.
It was whilst working at the constitutional court that Lee-Anne and a childhood friend co-founded The Embrace Project.
With her knowledge of constitutional law, Lee-Anne now leads on the NPO’s advocacy work which petitions for improved implementation of existing legislation on GBV and femicide (GBVF).
“We have some of the most progressive legislation in the world, but some of the worst rates of gender-based violence and femicide, meaning that there’s a disconnect between legislation and implementation.”
Through The Embrace Project, Lee-Anne started a petition calling out the presidency for poor implementation of legislation in South Africa. Her petition was picked up by Change.org, a global petition platform, and with their support, a campaign was launched around the petition in August 2022, coinciding with Women’s Month in South Africa.
Almost 30,000 signatures were collected and submitted to the Office of the Presidency. On receiving no response to the petition after a few weeks, Lee-Anne submitted a complaint to Parliament against the Office of the Presidency. Subsequently they were called to a meeting with a multidisciplinary government task team to discuss the petition.
Following Lee-Anne’s interview with the CSC, in November 2022, during the 16 Days of Activism Against GBVF, The Embrace Project officially launched a constitutional challenge against the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, the President of the Republic of South Africa, and the Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. This challenge seeks to alter the test used when determining intent in the commission of sexual offences and will ultimately effect the definitions of rape and consent in South Africa’s Sexual Offences Act, and hopefully assist the State in achieving higher rape convictions rates, which currently sit around the 8% mark.
You can read the response received from the Department of Justice and the challenge on The Embrace Project website.
Campaigning on social justice issues
Lee-Anne is now a Senior Campaigner at Change.org where she leads the organisation’s campaigns in South Africa. The petitions hosted by the platform are user developed and led, and as such cover a range of different issues. Lee-Ann’s team identify petitions that are focused on having a social impact, whether at national, community, or individual level, and develop campaigns around these.
“This whole model is based on ordinary citizens coming to the platform and wanting to create a change by starting up a petition. We assist them to realise this dream of creating a change by building a campaign, by identifying who the correct decision-maker is in their campaign.”
A recent example is a petition to force a university to honour degree offers to students enrolled on its teaching courses. Due to an administrative error by the university, it planned to rescind the students’ offers, despite a number of students having taken out loans and left their jobs to pursue degree programmes at the university. The petition and campaign led by her team was successful, and hundreds of students were absorbed into their courses and programmes.
“It’s actually a perfect fit for me because I’m able to work on a number of different social justice issues. Seeing somebody break down and cry at the thought of them now being able to become a teacher because they were bumped up to a better course because of our intervention, it’s a moment that I won’t forget.”
Enabling people to have a say on legislation
The legislative process in South African is open to public comment, a function which Lee-Anne highlights is underutilised by the public due to a lack of awareness and confidence in challenging legislation.
“It’s a combination of [the process] not being user-friendly and also just the general population not knowing that they can do it. The other thing is I think there’s quite a big sense of intimidation around, ‘We don’t understand legislation. We’re not lawyers. Our opinion might not matter or count’.”
To help encourage public input, Lee-Anne has created online forms to collect individual reasons why someone signing a Change.org petition relating to objections to bills or legislative amendments is choosing to do so. The reason for this, Lee-Anne explains, is that no matter how many signatures a petition gathers, in a submission to parliament to change legislation, the signatures will not be recognised as separate submissions.
“50,000 signatures in support of one submission will be seen as one submission. But if you’re filling out a Google form which asks you for your details and the reason why you are also, as a signer, objecting to this particular bill, each row in the spreadsheet that’s eventually populated as a response is then considered a separate submission. And that’s been a way that I’ve tried to make sure that a lot more people use their voice.”
Lee-Anne emphasises that whilst petitions gain public attention and provide a platform for people to demand social justice and change, what’s most important is what happens after signing. This includes recognition that each signature gathered is an induvial petition and submission, and that the submissions are submitted to the correct authority or committee. This is a part of the process in which her constitutional knowledge plays a critical role.
“You can have a petition with a million signatures, but what’s most important is what happens after signing. And it’s that part that I think that my previous work experience and also my studies really assist with.”
Through The Embrace Project, Lee-Anne has made five submissions on five different pieces of legislation, including gender-based violence, and femicide-related policy and legislation. A recent submission by Lee-Anne has resulted in significant amendments to a bill, soon to be passed as an act, which will inform the actions and recommendations of an international council that will be set up to respond to GBVF in South Africa.
Leading the constitutional challenge on consent
The Embrace Project is now focused on leading a constitutional challenge to the definition of consent and rape. In the Sexual Offences Act in South Africa, a subjective test for intent is currently used when having to prove rape, which has resulted in low rape convictions.
In 2020, The Embrace Project developed and submitted a blueprint proposal to a parliamentary workstream on GBVF to eradicate all forms and practices of GBVF in South Africa. The blueprint is focused on preventative measures, and outlines issues related to disempowerment, and psychosocial factors influencing sexual abuse, violence and rape.
“The blueprint tried to focus on all of those different aspects of South African society and also came up with some suggestions for the government, what they needed to work on in order to touch on these different aspects of preventative measures.”
Implementing the whole or some of the blueprint would require significant financial investment and political will from the government. As with all other submissions Lee-Anne has made on behalf of The Embrace Project, the success of the blueprint proposal will be measured in different ways. Legislative change and seeing social justice served are the overarching goals, but raising awareness of issues and putting pressure on policy makers as well as providing a voice for the public on social justice issues are not insignificant achievements.
Being part of a global Scholar community
Lee-Anne always hoped to work in the human rights space, either in roles supporting social justice or human rights and international human rights law. These ambitions motivated her to pursue an MSt in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford through a Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship.
She acknowledges that distance learning can be challenging, especially when balancing studying alongside full-time work. However, she reflects fondly on her Master’s course, which included summer residentials when the entire cohort would come together at the university.
“The summer residentials for me were the highlight because not only did I get to meet and interact with my cohort, but the in-person lectures made it so different. The calibre of the lecturers that they got in was amazing and the types of debates that then ensued because my classmates were people who were experts in their fields. You can’t get that level of education or debate anywhere else.”
Lee-Anne has stayed in contact with her classmates who, like herself, are working in human rights organisation across the world, and regularly ask for advice and share information about the work they are involved in.
Working for a global NGO, such as the United Nations, or the National Council on GBVF are future positions Lee-Anne aspires to. For now, her work with The Embrace Project and Change.org are providing important opportunities and exposure for her.
“I love my current job and I’m really, really grateful for it and there is growth opportunity within the organisation as well globally. In future, my ideal would be to have The Embrace Project really take off, get funding for it and just really be involved fully in the policymaking in this country around gender-based violence and femicide.”
Lee-Anne Germanos is a 2016 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from South Africa. She completed an MSt in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford.