South Africa: Rashida Manjoo - a Life in Human Rights

A life's work at the frontlines of human rights, including violence against women, may have sent anyone but Professor Rashida Manjoo running for the refuge of a quiet retirement come December. But there's more to be done, said the University of Cape Town (UCT) veteran law academic and human rights defender.

In writing about Professor Manjoo's work, first as an apartheid activist in the 1980s and later as special rapporteur on violence against women for the United Nations, it's hard to avoid a vocabulary of conflict.

But the world is at war with women. As she noted in a previous interview with UCT News, violence is not limited to conflict zones. It's in the everyday too.

"It is part of a continuum of the low-level warfare that women face on a daily basis in their families and communities and is exacerbated in times of conflict," she said. Trafficking, genital mutilation, child brides, slavery, domestic violence and femicide all count towards the record.

Human rights abuses

Transgressions against women and girls (she added the latter "on principle") are still the most prolific human rights abuses worldwide, even in developed democracies.

"The rhetoric states that," she said in an interview for a legal journal some years ago, "yet the reality is that it is not taken as seriously as other human rights violations."

The World Health Organization provides another metaphor for the global pervasiveness of this violence, describing it as a pandemic. Manjoo agrees.

"If this was a medical condition, we would have established a state of emergency long ago."

"If this was a medical condition, we would have established a state of emergency long ago."

Speaking during a recent webinar series organised by the Call to Action Collective, Manjoo traced the human rights record linked to women and paid tribute to the work of gender activists for "your marches and your in-your-face activities" over decades. "There's a cynicism and anger about what the country and world look like for women and girls."

However, despite women's rights being sidelined and often consigned to the work of ad hoc committees and policy documents - toothless formalities - there is some light in the South African context.

The country's proposed National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide will prepare the way for legislation to set up a "proper oversight and accountability mechanism" in the form of a council to monitor the promise of the strategic plan.

"We don't need more policies where there's no accountability," she said firmly. "We want solid stuff, not political appeasement."

To the activists who need to hold government to its commitment, Manjoo said: "Hold on to your truth that we need this."

War, conflict, pandemic

Manjoo's legacy as a scholar-activist began in a clothing factory 45 years ago.

"My social justice and human rights work is framed by my own context and reality," she said in a previous UCT News interview. "My parents couldn't afford education, so after matric my first job was as an accounts clerk in a clothing factory."

Multitasking between work and motherhood, she got three degrees and immersed herself in activism. At the end of the 1980s, she turned her attention to women's human rights.

But even as apartheid was being dismantled, it became clear to Manjoo that women's human rights needed to be deeply embedded in a post-apartheid South Africa. And so she got to work to help develop a women's charter, consulting with women on the ground and linking this back to the Constitution-making process. She was also instrumental in different capacities in law reform.

"We had learned from many other liberation struggles that the gender struggle would not necessarily be high on the agenda."

She recalled: "We had learned from many other liberation struggles that the gender struggle would not necessarily be high on the agenda and thus this needed to be made explicit."

In 2000 Manjoo joined UCT's now defunct Law, Race and Gender Research Unit as a senior research associate. She started by developing materials and providing "social context training" for judges and magistrates. After just a year, the president appointed her to the Commission for Gender Equality. Manjoo served five years as the parliamentary commissioner, while continuing as a UCT research associate.

In 2005 she left to work in the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School in the United States (US). She was away for two-and-a-half years, longer than she'd planned. Once back at UCT, Manjoo joined Professor Chuma Himonga to work on a research project on African customary law vis-à-vis women's rights and traditional justice mechanisms. This involved fieldwork in Limpopo and drew on her work at the Commission for Gender Equality, her work at Harvard Law School and her teaching at Webster University in Missouri in the US.

Watershed year

2009 was a watershed year. Manjoo was appointed United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. It was a six-year stint - and an eye-opener. Her investigative missions could be carried out only on invitation from government.

Her passport soon filled with foreign stamps (Algeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Sudan, Honduras, Afghanistan, the United Kingdom (UK) of 19 member countries where she talked with women in refugee camps, prisons, refugee detention centres and elsewhere to gather information on the causes and consequences of violence against women.

Manjoo was not always a welcome visitor. Some discussions with local women were clandestine as they feared repercussions. And even in the UK she was refused entry into the Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre where female detainees had complained about maltreatment by male guards.

"This served as proof that governments all over the world remain defensive about human rights issues."

"This served as proof that governments all over the world remain defensive about human rights issues."

In addition to reports on the 19 countries she visited, Manjoo wrote 11 themed reports, expanding the conceptual understanding of member states on violence against women. In doing so, she identified the "normative gaps" in international law between human rights standards and on-the-ground infractions against women.

Her last two reports highlighted a glaring fact: under international law there are no provisions that impose legally binding obligations on member states to eliminate violence against women. Manjoo recommended the adoption of a specific international treaty to address the normative gap. That never happened.

In a later interview in a legal journal, Manjoo said: "The rhetoric is that violence against women is a human rights violation, yet the reality is that it is not taken as seriously as other human rights violations."

Governments are reluctant to accept responsibility. South Africa's National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide will hopefully contribute to a more effective and holistic response to violence against women and girls in our country.

Teaching and research

Over the past 10 years, Manjoo's teaching and research contributions have been prolific and diverse. She has a raft of scholarly publications to her name. She has taught courses in the LLM, MPhil and PGDip human rights programme and was convenor or co-convenor of the programme at different times.

Initially she co-taught the International Protection of Human Rights course and subsequently introduced a course on the International Protection of Women's Human Rights. She also participated as a guest lecturer in other courses at UCT and at different universities.

Teaching reviews have consistently rated Manjoo in the top league ("very good / excellent"). She attributes this to the capacity to link the theory and practice of human rights, gleaned in national, regional and international human rights institutions and organisations.

As an academic, mentorship is important to her.

"None of us learnt these things alone," she said in the Call to Action Collective webinar. Like activism, academia is a collective endeavour to share, nurture and develop.

Manjoo supervises the dissertations of students enrolled in the LLM, MPhil and PhD degrees, and the results reflect a commitment to excellence that she strives for in the supervision and mentoring relationship with her students.

As a senior black faculty member, she believes in walking alongside younger black faculty members, supporting them in numerous ways: reviewing draft PhD dissertation chapters, developing courses and helping them navigate complex personal and professional challenges - including issues of racism.

Ploughing back is one way of growing new seed. And though retirement is four months off, Manjoo has already volunteered to help mentor and guide her successor, if required. She is also keen to continue supervising PhD candidates. It's unpaid work, but she sees these 'legacy efforts' as part of her contribution to the faculty's law project.

Awards and accolades

Among the global awards for her work in human rights are the American Bar Association annual International Human Rights Award; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Chair Award from the University of Connecticut; the inaugural McKinley Award for Good Governance from Albany Law School; and honorary degrees from the University of Glasgow, the City University of New York, and Northeastern University in the US.

Her contributions have extended to corporate UCT too, including participating in an initiative to develop a policy on police during the unrest of 2015 to 2017. At the request of former vice-chancellor Dr Max Price, Manjoo undertook a review of sexual harassment cases addressed by the relevant UCT mechanism. Students had complained that UCT's response to sexual offences was inappropriate, underwhelming and had led to impunity for offenders in many cases. When students voiced concerns about bias in the implementation of the UCT academic exclusion policy, Dr Price appointed Manjoo to participate in a review committee, headed by law colleague Professor Hugh Corder.

Manjoo is also involved in a range of research and advisory partnerships, including The Lancet Commission on Gender-based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People; Feminist Representations: Sexual Violence Against Women, Asylum and Testimony; and a comparative study of resilience among survivors of war rape and sexual violence.


Last words go to her colleagues, treasured partners and fellow travellers: Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation Professor Loretta Feris, erstwhile colleague in the law faculty, and Toni Murphy, an administrative assistant in the law faculty.

Quoting Manjoo, Murphy said: "'If we address the power of women rather than rescuing them, we give them tools to become active agents.' For me, this is one of Rashida's most profound statements. Not only does she utter these words and it reaches global platforms and all kinds of social media outlets, she lives by it. She teaches it. She is it.

"Without this woman, I would have stayed in the deepest, darkest pits of despair, both personally and professionally. I'm now reading towards my MBA."

"Rashida has taken all of six years not only to afford me these tools, but trustingly and frustratingly watched me become an active agent of change within my own life. Her tools are tangible enough to pay it forward, to make it real. It's very simple for her - check in, cross-check, double-check.

"Without this woman, I would have stayed in the deepest, darkest pits of despair, both personally and professionally. I'm now reading towards my MBA."

She added: "Rashida is a real champion for change and she expects you to work at it. She will guide you, protect you and teach you, but she expects no laziness, no tardiness, and therefore to do it for yourself. Rashida can easily identify whether you are capable of doing it for yourself or not, and if it is the latter, she will happily pave the way for you.

"Rashida hates injustice - period. And Rashida is the agent for change she wants to see in this world. It was an amazing professional journey and a kinship that will last me and the cubs a lifetime.

"Thank you for sharing the corridors of Kramer and the spaces at UCT with me, a woman, a woman of colour, a woman of inferior class - these invisible badges we have to carry which you don't see! You always saw me, first. A big thank you for that."

"Rashida reminded me that I have the choice to either bemoan the slow rate of change at UCT or to be an agent of change and drive the change I want to see."

Professor Feris said: "Rashida and I inhibited the same corridors in Kramer for a good number of years [and] during this time I [came] to know Rashida as a teacher, an activist, a defender of human rights, a scholar, a mentor and a comrade in arms.

"She has been the go-to person for women and for black students and staff, always willing to guide and advise. When I was wrestling with whether to step into the position of [Deputy Vice-Chancellor for] Transformation and leave the safe scholarly environment to tackle the seemingly unsurmountable challenge of heading up transformation at UCT, she was the person who I turned to for advice and guidance.

"Rashida reminded me that I have the choice to either bemoan the slow rate of change at UCT or to be an agent of change and drive the change I want to see. It inspired me to take up the challenge. Through her work on human rights and violence against women, Rashida has contributed to UCT, the country and the world. For that we are indebted."

More From: UCT

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 900 reports a day from more than 140 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.