Provide rights-based education and awareness
Related Tools

Establish and expand legal assistance programmes for women and girls

Last edited: December 22, 2011

This content is available in


Ministries of Justice should ensure that legal assistance is widely available and accessible to women and girl victims of violence. Ministries should:

  • Offer legal assistance for cases outside the criminal system. Legal assistance programmes often are limited to criminal cases. Yet, women often have claims in family law, inheritance, and property matters, and the resolution of these cases often has a strong bearing on a woman’s ability to create a life free of violence. For example, a woman may not be able to leave a marriage or claim her rightful interest in property due to the high costs of litigation.
  • Design broad criteria for eligibility for legal assistance. Legal assistance should be available not only to women who are single and meet income-level criteria, but also to married or partnered women who may not be eligible if their partner’s income is considered, but who may be seeking legal assistance based upon partner abuse or who may not have access to their partner’s income.
  • Improve physical access to legal assistance programmes. A lack of transportation, child care, funds to travel, and the opportunity to travel may preclude a woman from seeking legal assistance. Legal assistance programmes should be readily available in a variety of contexts. Programmes should be located in urban and rural areas in women’s shelters or NGOs, childcare facilities, health care clinics, or dedicated street or walk-in legal clinics. An advantage to holding legal assistance programmes in women’s NGOs or shelters is the presence of other forms of assistance, such as financial aid or psychosocial counseling. Clinics should be staffed on a regular basis with lawyers or paralegals. Programmes in non-dedicated locations should provide private areas for consultation.
  • Eliminate court costs to pursue claims on violence against women. Many women are precluded from accessing the justice system due to the high cost of pursuing a claim. Not all cases involving violence will enter the courts through the criminal system. All court costs and filing fees in cases of violence against women should be eliminated, including in cases of domestic violence and sexual harassment.
  • Promote and expand the use of paralegals with specialized training on issues involving women and girl survivors of violence. Paralegals are individuals with training in legal issues who are not lawyers. Paralegals should be trained on issues of gender-based violence and on the ability to communicate sensitively to survivors. Paralegals can provide information on legal rights to survivors at lower cost than lawyers; however, they cannot represent survivors in court proceedings, and should not be an “end point” of assistance for survivors of violence. Paralegals should always have access to attorneys for victims who decide to access courts of justice.

Paralegals should promote access to women and girl survivors of violence through community programmes of legal awareness and education.

Development and Use of Paralegal Programmes Around the World

Guatemala - Community leaders become certified paralegals

Women community leaders, concerned about the prevalence of domestic violence near Guatemala City after receiving training on violence against women and justice issues, concluded that they wanted to become certified paralegals in order to assist domestic violence survivors. Steps were taken to develop a paralegal programme:

  • The Women’s Legal Rights Initiative Guatemala formed an alliance with a local justice centre, the Justice Center of Villa Nueva, to host the trainings.
  • The partners worked with the Institute of Comparative Criminal Studies to develop curricula and training materials for the women leaders.
  • Graduates of the Gender and the Law Program at the University of San Carlos offered technical expertise to the paralegals through workshops and consultations.
  • The Justice Center, the Institute, and graduates of the Gender and the Law diploma and master’s programmes designed training manuals, and the graduates designed the training curriculum and taught the paralegals.
  • As a result, a network of paralegal women, trained on issues of gender-based violence, serve women in their community. The paralegals also developed a manual on family violence for low-literacy readers which describes its effects on women and demonstrates how to help survivors of violence with legal and community resources.

See the Paralegal Manual on Domestic Violence (Community Paralegals, published by The Women’s Legal Rights Initiative, 2006). Available in Spanish.


Source: USAID. 2007. The Women’s Legal Rights Initiative.


  • Utilize professional bar associations to extend legal assistance programmes. Although the primary responsibility to provide legal assistance to women and girl victims of violence should lie with the state, the resources of bar associations can provide important support. Bar associations can promote the provision of pro bono or free-of-charge community lawyer services by recruiting volunteers, publicizing outstanding efforts, and creating service awards at the peer level. They can encourage well-resourced law firms to dedicate a percentage of their billable hours to pro bono work, and recognize firms which achieve these standards. This strategy is most effective if states provide a tax incentive for law firms to donate billable time and if lawyers are required to perform a certain number of pro bono hours each year in order to retain their license to practice law. Training should be provided for volunteer lawyers on violence against women issues. For contact information for bar associations worldwide, click here.
  • Utilize law schools to extend legal assistance programmes. Law schools can create clinics which specialize in serving women and girl victims of violence. Law-school-affiliated clinics can combine practical assistance with principles of women’s human rights. Clinic graduates will expand the capacity of their profession to respond to women’s legal issues. Law schools have the resources and capacity to utilize clinics to advance ground-breaking public interest litigation cases on issues on violence against women. Law school clinics should be designed to be sustainable: Line-item budgeting, pursuing private endowments, long-term leadership, and regular establishment in law school curriculum on equal par with other coursework will help ensure sustainability. For example, The Protection Project worked with the Ministry of Justice of Egypt and the Alexandria University Faculty of Law to establish a Family Law Legal Clinic. This Clinic, which provides assistance to victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable community members, is now a mandatory part of the curriculum. The Protection Project also provides support to the Clinical Legal Program at Qom University, Iran.
  • Encourage retired lawyers to staff NGO legal assistance programmes or walk-in clinics. The experience of retired lawyers can provide a significant benefit for women and girl survivors of violence. The state should provide training on legal issues common to survivors of violence, and, importantly, on sensitivity to issues around gender-based violence. Retirees should be provided with necessary office equipment to ensure success. The ministry should partner with the judiciary in this project. The judiciary’s involvement in recruiting, monitoring, and recognizing achievements of retired volunteer lawyers could provide a significant incentive for able individuals to provide this service. Peer and community recognition could reinforce their continued desire to serve.

USA – Tahirih Justice Center

The Tahirih Justice Center in Virginia, United States, provides representation in immigration law to women and girls fleeing gender-based violence by utilizing a network of over 600 lawyers across the nation who donate their services. Tahirih is able to maximize and support its volunteer base by:

  • Offering co-counsel services by Tahirih staff attorneys;
  • Providing immigration law training;
  • Providing ongoing mentorship to volunteers;
  • Maintaining regular contact via an email newsletter on relevant legal issues;
  • Offering an E-Forum for network attorneys which provides training and support materials; and
  • Providing lawyers with case management support for non-legal needs of clients such as referrals for social and medical services.

Source: http://www.tahirih.org/.


Cambodia - Women’s Justice Program

The Women’s Justice Program, a project of Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), was established with aid from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) in March 2008 to increase women’s access to justice. In addition to providing direct legal services to women in three provinces, largely in cases of divorce and/or gender-based crimes, the Women’s Justice Program conducts outreach to relevant institutions such as the Women’s Affairs Departments, Police Commissariats, and District Governors to provide information regarding legal services available for women. Further, the programme organized a workshop attended by government and civil society stakeholders who discussed the challenges faced in providing women with greater access to justice and suggested strategies to overcome these obstacles. After eleven months of operation, the programme had undertaken 135 cases and an increase in the number of women requesting the programme’s services was noted. Among the obstacles discussed at the workshop were: the unwillingness of provincial court clerks to cooperate with Women’s Justice Program lawyers, delays in investigating and prosecuting criminal charges, insufficient witness and victim protection, biases of judges, infrequent registration of marriages, lack of judicial independence, and absence of a code of ethics for judges and prosecutors. Strategies identified included: creating greater availability of free legal and social services for women, promoting the use of marriage certificates, providing further training for police and women, and prohibiting mediation in cases of serious crimes.

Source: Legal Aid of Cambodia. 2009. Legal Representation for Women: Constraints and Lessons Learned.


Zimbabwe – Women Lawyers Help Women Represent Themselves

The Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) provides legal training to groups of women facing similar legal issues, enabling them to represent themselves in magistrate-level court proceedings. The organization also trains court clerks, magistrates, and chiefs, who operate in rural areas of Zimbabwe. The organization also advocates for laws that will provide legal protection to women and was instrumental in the passage of the Domestic Violence Act and new inheritance laws. By bringing forth test cases, ZWLA confirms that laws are being administered in a manner consistent with women’s rights. Finally, ZWLA offers legal assistance through clinics at its two offices (located in Harare and Bulawayo) and through mobile legal assistance clinics that operate in rural areas.

Source: Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association last acc. 16-11-2-10


Gender-Based Violence Legal Aid: A Participatory Toolkit (ARC International, 2005). Available in English. This guide provides information on assessing the need for, status of, and appropriate responses to gender-based violence in both conflict and non-conflict settings.