QUAA Alumni Humanitarian Award recipient uses human rights law to protect 10 million Kenyan girls

[Photo of Fiona Sampson]
Photo by Brian Jaybee

Human rights lawyer Fiona Sampson, Artsci’85, Law’93, was the driving force behind a landmark ruling in 2013 that found Kenyan police at fault for failing to protect girls from rape. The successful case, filed on behalf of 160 girls who were survivors of rape, now helps to protect more than 10 million women and girls in Kenya from similar crimes in the future. Ms. Sampson and her team are now working with Kenyan police – who rarely investigated rape cases before the lawsuit – training them to better handle sexual assaults, and girls and communities are being empowered to claim their rights under the “160 Girls” law.

“I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction knowing this decision brought justice for the 160 girls who inspired the case, and greater protection for all girls in Kenya,” says Ms. Sampson, the founder of Equality Effect, a non-profit charity that uses international human rights law to fight for justice on behalf of women and girls around the world. “Our case is making an impact on girls’ rights internationally as other activists and lawyers look at our project as a blueprint for change in their countries.”

The Queen’s University Alumni Association (QUAA) is recognizing Ms. Sampson’s incredible humanitarian work by awarding her the Alumni Humanitarian Award at this year’s Alumni Awards Gala on April 2. The award is presented to a Queen’s alumnus or alumna in recognition of distinguished work or volunteer service, at home or abroad, which has made a difference to the well-being of others.

“This award feels like a big bonus because I love the work I get to do and I work with amazing people at Equality Effect,” says Ms. Sampson. “After studying at Queen’s, my interest has been in the experiences of disadvantaged persons and looking for ways to establish a new equilibrium where people on the outside of power can get access to the inside.”

This Alumni Award is not the first time Ms. Sampson’s humanitarian efforts have been recognized. The “160 Girls” lawsuit in Kenya has caught the attention of the New York Times, British newspaper The Guardian, and CBC Radio’s The Current. Ms. Sampson was named one of the top 25 most influential lawyers in 2014 by Canadian Lawyer Magazine and was awarded the Distinction in International Affairs Award by the New York State Bar Association. In 2015, Ms. Sampson was appointed to the Order of Canada.

In Kenya, a woman is raped every 30 minutes but the attackers are rarely charged. The “160 Girls” lawsuit was sparked by Kenyan social worker Mercy Chidi. Ms. Chidi ran a rape shelter and was frustrated when she would accompany victims to police stations in the town of Meru, but the officers would demand bribes and rarely arrest anyone.

Ms. Sampson and Ms. Chidi led a team of volunteers who documented the inaction of police and then filed a lawsuit for failing to protect the 160 girls who ranged in age from three to 17. The “160 Girls” project took several years but the case finally went to the High Court of Kenya. On May 27, 2013, the court ruled police must investigate cases of rape against children or the officers themselves could face jail time.

Ms. Sampson’s desire to fight for the marginalized people of society was sparked while working on her fourth-year undergraduate thesis at Queen’s. She was writing about developing northern Ontario and how to reconcile environmental rights and Aboriginal rights with development interests. She says merging her personal and academic interests was inspiring.

“It was before 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec and Aboriginal issues were not something I was familiar. My thesis opened up a whole new world for me and I became passionate about Aboriginal issues and human rights.” says Ms. Sampson, noting the Political Studies Professor Emeritus Ned Franks and some of the Queen’s feminist law professors had a big influence on her.

Over the past 20 years, Ms. Sampson has dedicated herself to helping First Nations, refugees, disabled people, and victims of violence. She is a member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada representing various women’s organizations in equality rights cases.

Bill Flanagan, the Dean of Queen’s Faculty of Law, believes that Ms. Sampson is a perfect choice for the QUAA Humanitarian Award.

“Fiona has dedicated her career to fighting for and promoting human rights, particularly for young women, in Canada and internationally. She has been a remarkable leader and role model. I am delighted that QUAA has chosen to honour her,” says Dean Flanagan.

Online registration for the QUAA Alumni Award Gala is now open for anyone who would like to come and help the Queen’s community honour Ms. Sampson.

Do you know a Queen’s alumnus or alumna who deserves to be nominated for the Alumni Humanitarian Award? Please email the QUAA for details about the nomination process.