Queen’s alum recognized by United Nations

Fiona Sampson’s women’s rights project is the first Canadian NGO to receive the honour

UN General Assembly.
Supplied via Flickr

On Nov. 28, The Equality Effect CEO and Queen’s alum Fiona Sampson celebrated her organization’s historic United Nations (UN) recognition at a Toronto reception. 

The Equality Effect (E2) is a non-profit charity that uses international human rights law to achieve justice for women and girls around the world. 

E2’s primary focus is the 160 Girls project — a long-term legal effort based on the testimonies of 160 girls in Kenya who’d been sexually assaulted. The litigation resulted in a 2013 Kenya High Court ruling that protects Kenyan girls from sexual assault and facilitated changes in the police force to advocate for consent and education. 

The UN first recognized the 160 Girls project in June 2017 for its best practices advancing women’s rights and empowerment. It was the first Canadian NGO and women’s rights organization to receive this honour.

In 2016, Sampson, ArtSci ’85/Law ’93, received the Queen’s University Alumni Association (QUAA) Alumni Humanitarian Award for her work with E2. In an interview with The Journal, Sampson spoke about the impact her time at Queen’s has had on her work. 

While on campus, Sampson said she found it invigorating to “challenge the dominant norms” relating to Indigenous culture and the environment. She credited her Queen’s professors with providing opportunities to explore her budding interest in social justice. 

Sampson described her involvement at Queen’s — first as an undergraduate and then as a law student — as “following that fire, knowing that […] the law could be used to address the inequities [she’d] first been exposed to on a pretty over-privileged campus in southern Ontario.” 

Despite this, Sampson’s campus altruism didn’t always have a clear purpose. “I remember walking around in third and fourth year thinking, ‘I have no idea what my future is’ […] I had this energy that consumed me, but I didn’t know how it was going to play out,” she said.

Although she gives Queen’s a lot of credit, Sampson’s childhood gave her an early introduction to struggles that later influenced her interest in social justice. 

When pregnant with her, Sampson’s mother took thalidomide — a morning sickness drug that causes limb malformation. Sampson’s experience as a thalidomide victim made her “very alert” to injustice and impunity. 

This experience, coupled with her narrow focus at Queen’s, led Sampson to the foundation of E2.

E2’s ‘litigation in a box’ model cemented the organization’s UN recognition. The transferability of their equality research and strategic action plans has caused the law community to describe the organization’s success as a “landmark” for women’s rights advocacy. 

According to Sampson, the UN recognition has facilitated the organization’s hopes for expansion, as it provided a “huge boost” in terms of recognition and credibility. Sampson’s undergraduate interest in Indigenous issues remains today, as E2 explores thepossibility of connecting with Indigenous communities in Canada.

“Seeing those girls get justice is really the pinnacle of satisfaction for me,” Sampson said. “That is energy that I will continue to feed into the work for the beneficiaries.”

“For the girls on the ground to be celebrated as change-makers on an international stage is a tribute. To see the transformation […] from being an outcast to being celebrated like that — that is the hugely satisfying kind of moment we look to achieve.” 

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