Women Making Waves through Constitutional Activism

From left to right, Ms. Brigitte Mabandla, former Minister of Justice, Ms. Yasmin Sooka, Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, Ms. Susan Bazilli and High Commissioner Adèle Dion

What role have women played in human rights activism around the world? When it comes to citizen engagement, few can match the passion and dedication of the individuals featured in Constitute!, a short documentary that profiles the diverse history of women’s activism in constitution-making. Constitute! tells the story of social mobilizations of women in 20th century Canadian history, in addition to profiling the ongoing struggles of courageous activists in Afghanistan, Rwanda, and South Africa.

Constitute! is a project of the Vancouver-based International Women’s Rights Project (IWRP). It is a multi-media educational resource on citizen engagement and women’s constitutional activism, designed to educate high school and university students about democracy in Canada and beyond. The film is a celebration of passion for democratic renewal, featuring interviews, speeches, songs and images from the historic Ad Hoc Committee of Women and the Constitution of 1981, which saw 1,300 women come together to change history, successfully advocating for equality in the newly repatriated constitution.

Nearly thirty years later, the High Commission of Canada in Pretoria hosted a screening of Constitute! in partnership with the Foundation for Human Rights and the IWRP.

The screening was attended by 40 people, mostly from the Human Rights NGO community in Johannesburg. It was followed by a discussion with Susan Bazilli, Director of the IWRP and executive producer of the film. The discussion focused on women’s involvement in constitution-making and the parallels between South Africa and Canada.

“Women's activism to bring equality into constitutions has largely been written out of global history — and the experiences of women in Canada and South Africa are much more similar than we think,” said Ms. Bazilli.

Bazilli said she was motivated to produce the film “primarily for high school and university audiences, so that we can teach this history and use it to inspire our youth to new and different activism for social change.”

The event was filmed by the South African Broadcasting Corporation and interviews with Susan Bazilli and High Commissioner Adèle Dion were broadcast during a program marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the start of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign.

“We see that human rights are fragile and we must jealously guard them — this film shows how important citizen engagement is to the process of democracy,” said High Commissioner Dion.

You can learn more and watch the film online.