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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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She is changing the world. Her name is Charlene May

Charlene May is an attorney at the Women's Legal Centre in Cape Town.

Charlene May is an attorney at the Women's Legal Centre in Cape Town.

Published Aug 9, 2019


Cape Town - Charlene May grew up on the Cape Flats where domestic violence was rife and women were often disempowered, both in their homes and in a system that did not recognise them as the equals of the men they lived and worked with. This laid the foundation for a life of activism and a commitment to fighting for the rights of women.

It's not surprising that Charlene chose to use her legal training to further this activism.

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When I arrived at her office for our interview I was immediately struck by her ready smile and warm, but very firm, handshake. Here was a woman, I quickly surmised, who knew what her purpose was and who felt comfortable in the space she inhabits.

Charlene and her colleagues at the Women's Legal Centre in Cape Town have made it their mission to advocate for women and "tell women's stories from a legal perspective".

Video: Sandisiwe Ntlemeza/African News Agency (ANA) and Jamal-Dean Grootboom.


The centre, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, helps to ensure that women enjoy the rights laid out in South Africa's bill of rights. They do this by means of litigation or advocacy. 

One well-known case is last year's judgment by the Western Cape High Court which found that the State was obliged to introduce legislation to recognise Muslim marriages. The State is appealing this ruling but Charlene is hopeful that the appeals court will uphold the lower court's judgment.

Another landmark case was a judgment effectively scrapping a 20-year time limit for victims of sexual assault to lay charges against their attacker. The judgment, which was handed down in the Gauteng High Court was confirmed by the Constitutional Court in June last year. 

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Commenting on the case, Charlene said: "It is one of the only judgments of its kind in the country where the court recognises that it is a fallacy that we can develop and design laws as if women are all going to experience sexual violence in the same way and were all going to respond to it in the same way so we should all only have a set period in which to report it."

A wife and mother herself, Charlene is acutely aware of the limitations still placed on women in the workplace and by society at large, but it is clear that she is prepared to continue to fight for women to claim their rightful places in the workplace and society as a whole.

"I think that the success that we've had in our work around sexual harassment in particular is to really bring a gendered lens, or a feminist lens to sexual harassment to say it's not just about having laws and policies; it's about whether those laws and policies are accessible to women," she says.

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"In the cases that we've done in the last two years, we've shown that we can really have an impact and change workplaces for women."


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