Because the 9th of August was Women’s Day, August is Women’s Month, and Sunday, the 26th of August is Women’s Equality Day, OurHood has decided that every Tuesday we will discuss one woman in history whose brave actions paved the way for women today.

Last Tuesday we honoured: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
And the Tuesday before that we honoured: Dr Frene Ginwala.

Today, we honour:

Photo credit: First Peoples Worldwide

Navi Pillay is the first non-white female judge of the High Court of South Africa. Not only that, but she also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Pillay was born in 1941 in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Durban, Natal Province.

Photo credit: OHCHR

Although being born into an anti-Apartheid era, Pillay once told a reporter:
“While there was strict control over us, my parents believed in the equality of all their children, and educated both boys and girls,”

“My three sisters and I were fortunate to have enlightened parents who allowed us the opportunity to become judges and school principals.”

Enthusiastically supported by her local Indian community, as well as financially, she graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and an LLB in 1965. She later attended Harvard Law School, obtaining an LLM in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science degree in 1988.

Photo credit: Tufts University

Pillay is the first South African to obtain a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School.

In 1967, Pillay became the first non-white woman to open her own law practice.

She had no other alternative: “No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person”.

Photo credit: Reuters

During her 28 years as a lawyer, she defended anti-Apartheid activists and exposed torture.

In 1973, she helped establish key rights for political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers.

Pillay worked as a lecturer at the University of KZN, and later was appointed Vice-President of the University of Durban Westville.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In 1995, the year after the African National Congress came to power, Mandela nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve on the High Court of South Africa. In the same year, she was elected by the UN General Assembly to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She served as President for the latter half of the 8 years she spent in this role.

“I hold that human rights cannot be traded for access, justice cannot be subordinated for peace, and people must be at the center of state policies and actions,” Pillay said about her role when she was serving as high commissioner.

Photo credit: BBC

“Unfortunately, governments fail to protect their own people… I am always conscious that I would be failing in my duty if I were to relax and fail to use the power of my office to keep the spotlight on advancing protection every minute of every day.”

Pillay played a critical role in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s groundbreaking law(s) on rape as genocide, as well as on issues of freedom of speech and hate propaganda.

“We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war,” Pillay said.

As a member of the Women’s National Coalition in South Africa, she contributed to the inclusion of the equality in the Constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and those with disabilities.

She co-founded the international women’s rights group called Equality Now (a just world for women and girls), and was involved with other organisations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture and domestic violence, and a range of economic, social and cultural rights.

Photo credit: Time