Around the world, billions of people who are excluded from legal systems are unable to expect, or fight for, the most basic of social and economic rights. Dutch lawyer and legal activist Patricia van Nispen tot Sevenaer is addressing the oversight—one person at a time.
Van Nispen tot Sevenaer set up ILA Microjustice for All in 1996 after working for the United Nations in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, refugees often fled without valid identity documents. Without these papers they could not cross the newly established borders to retrieve them, nor could they hope to resettle elsewhere. Van Nispen tot Sevenaer set up a network of lawyers and activists to help people rebuild their lives. She also found her calling. “You feel for what your mission is in life,” she says.
Microjustice is legal aid structurally inspired by microfinance. In 2006 Van Nispen tot Sevenaer moved to La Paz to open Microjustice Bolivia, launched in 2007 as the first branch of the global Microjustice network. Identity documents are a large part of the work—a quarter of Bolivians lack them and are barred from the government’s universal pension and other benefits and rights—and the organization also tackles property rights, microenterprise support, and labor protection.
With a second branch now open in Peru, Van Nispen tot Sevenaer is looking toward the future, assessing possibilities in Sri Lanka and Rwanda. Where she can’t go, others are welcome: ILA Microjustice for All recently developed an open-source handbook designed to help other projects get off the ground.
Van Nispen tot Sevenaer on the amazing staff in Bolivia: “I was advised to plan on staying here for at least for four years, but in La Paz, I am not so needed anymore. They really are experts. Of all of them recruited in August 2007, and some before that—only one person has left. The interns renewed their internships; people really like what they are doing. I’ve never seen such a thing, and for little money. Last year I was here most of the time, now I am here four times a year. My purpose is to make it three times a year, going toward two times—I want to be open. We have to move more on. It is important to show that Microjustice is a world wide issue.”
On the clout of an emerging global network: “Our goal is sustainability, so that people are paying. People are so poor, however, that to make them pay all is very difficult—but I think if you can help millions of people, and you only need a million dollars a year . . . it’s a structural way of getting the poor out of their horrible position. It’s not just a financial issue, though, it’s also lobbying. If you do only legal aid you get stuck in the system. You have to push for change in the system. Our challenge is to get Microjustice on the political agenda.
If anyone in the U.S. wants to open a Microjustice office—I think it would be great in New York or Washington. . . There are a lot of poor people [in the United States] who would benefit from a Microjustice approach. Many of them are facing the same kinds of problems [we’re addressing in Bolivia and Peru.]
In a global network, we support each other, providing information and sharing information in the Microjustice manual. The challenges are pretty similar around the world, and the idea is to have regional offices. It really is an international vision for how the world is going to function more and more—in unity.”
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