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Profile: Beatrice Mtetwa, Recipient of ULaw Honorary Doctorate 2015

Beatrice Mtetwa has been called one of the bravest lawyers in Africa and is internationally recognised for her courage in championing human rights and free speech in Zimbabwe. She is well known for her defence of journalists and human rights workers in challenging extreme personal circumstances including harassment by state agents and physical assault. 

She has received many international awards in recognition of her work including the Law Society of England and Wales Humans Rights of the Year Award, International Woman of Courage Award and the American Bar Association International Human Rights Award.

Along with Dame Janet Smith she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from ULaw at last weekend’s graduation ceremony. Here she shares a small part of her inspirational story.

When I came to Zimbabwe in 1983, I joined the prosecution department as a prosecutor. Although I remained in prosecution until 1989, I became increasingly worried by the selectivity of the prosecutions and it was to try and counter these abuses of the law that I went into private practice in 1989 and started doing human rights work in earnest in 1990.

I have been offered many alternative career paths which would not ruffle as many feathers as my current work does and I have never seriously considered these. As a lawyer who took the oath to abide by the country’s laws, I have never really felt that my work is risky as what I do is normal legal work that no self-respecting lawyer should be afraid to do. I never consider what might happen to me personally when I take over a case; instead, I think what might happen to the person who requires my services if I do not take over the case.

My motivation really comes from the fact that people’s rights continued to be trampled upon and as most of these are rights protected under the country’s laws, I feel it is my duty to continue highlighting the fact that these rights were given so that they could be enjoyed and where violations occur, I try to do all I can to preserve these rights and their enjoyment.

I cannot really say that I have had a career highlight as I like thinking that to the affected individuals, their cases, however small or unimportant, should be handled and treated as if nothing else matters. What I have been pleasantly surprised is the recognition I have received externally when all I have done is do what any self-respecting lawyer should be doing.

The joy of seeing someone, who would never have attained any form of justice without my intervention, is probably what I consider success. Many years ago, one of the cleaners a the High Court lost her husband and as usually happens, his relatives immediately evicted her and her son from the house where she had lived with her husband. My intervention helped her keep the house and each time she sees me at the courts where she still remains as a cleaner, she cries!! I believe that this was a successful intervention despite the fact that she did not have even two cents to rub together.

I feel that as human rights defenders, we have not even scratched the surface. What I find frustrating is that the majority of lawyers in Zimbabwe are totally blind to rights violations and hardly ever consider these unless these are pointed out to them. I therefore definitely believe that despite being nearer 60, I still have a lot of work ahead of me although this may not necessarily achieve the desired result where rights will be respected as a matter of course.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the international recognition I have received as I do not regard myself as being particularly courageous. I approach my cases from the perspective that all cases are the same and that access to justice should not depend on the nature of the case. I am therefore always surprised when I get into trouble for doing my work as this is the work I took an oath to do.

To young people, I always say that whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability and not necessarily to advance yourself only. Law is a wonderful calling as so much more can be done with it compared to other career paths. Those who do not necessarily follow a path such as mine can always empower those who do and the emphasis should really be in making a difference to someone who might otherwise have fallen into the many legal cracks that exist in our systems.

I am a home maker who spends more time in the kitchen at home than anyone else I know. I love being surrounded by family and friends and entertain virtually every weekend. I also de-stress through dancing, preferably on a new pair of the trendiest heels in town!

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