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19 October 2021
Social justice at the heart of Naylor’s career

As the International Programme Director for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice at the Ford Foundation, an international social justice organisation, Nicolette Naylor plays a key role in creating and facilitating international philanthropic partnerships between civil society and governments at the international level. Naylor, who was born and bred in Belhar, Cape Town, is a proud alumna of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Faculty of Law, where she completed her B Proc LLB degree in 1997.

Naylor says she decided to study at UWC because it was UWC’s history as a university that had stood up against apartheid, its focus on providing disadvantaged students with access to higher education, and its continued fight against discrimination and oppression that attracted her to the institution.

Throughout her student years, Naylor was dedicated to her academics and focused on learning as much as she possibly could while at UWC. She was also active in the Women’s Movement on campus and worked at the Gender Equity Unit at UWC as well as within the Law Faculty as a tutor and research assistant, and was actively engaged in the Law Clinic’s Programmes.

“When I studied law in 1993, I was taught by prominent political figures like Yvonne Mokgoro and Albie Sachs, both former Constitutional Court justices. It was an exciting time to be studying law, particularly constitutional law, because the country was finalising the Constitution and human rights law was so relevant to the South African experience – the country was full of hope in terms of the dawn of a constitutional democracy and the law faculty at UWC was at the centre of that moment,” says Naylor.

“The lecturers within the law faculty instilled in students a very strong social justice ethic and a passion for the law. This is where I learnt about how the law can be a tool for fighting oppression and a catalyst for social change. The seeds of social justice and the idea that one could practice law ‘in the public interest’ and not for profit or gain were planted in these early years at UWC.”

Naylor started her professional career at a large corporate law firm, but after completing her articles she realised that her passion for social justice and activism was being stifled in that environment. In 2002 she joined the Women’s Legal Centre, a Cape Town-based NGO, as a human rights feminist lawyer. It was this position that solidified her interest and passion for women’s rights, particularly the work around gender-based violence. Whilst at the Women’s Legal Centre Naylor litigated key cases developing the law of sexual harassment in South Africa as well as constitutional jurisprudence in relation to rape and child abuse. Having always enjoyed the study of law and academia, particularly during her time at UWC, Naylor was keen to complete a Master’s and expand her horizons beyond South African law. She was awarded the prestigious Nelson Mandela Scholarship to complete her LLM in International Human Rights at the University of London (UCL) while employed at the Women’s Legal Centre, and took a leave of absence for one year.

In 2005 she decided to pursue a more global role and joined an international human rights organisation, INTERIGHTS, in London, where she worked as a human rights lawyer focusing on bringing cases before the African Commission for Human & Peoples’ Rights and the European Court of Human Rights with a primary focus on women’s rights. In 2007 she left INTERIGHTS to join the Ford Foundation, where she took on the role of a Programme Officer in the Southern Africa office. The Ford Foundation is one of the largest independent private foundations in the world that funds social justice work through a US $13 billion endowment that includes committing $600 million a year in grants to non-profit organizations. As a programme officer her work focused on getting more and better resources to human rights and women’s rights organisations – largely supporting and strengthening the public interest law infrastructure in South Africa and the region.

Today Naylor is the International Director for gender and racial justice work managing teams in New York, London, India, Sri Lanka & Nepal, Southern Africa, West Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Central America. She oversees strategy and manages a budget of $50 million dollars for global grant making on gender, racial and ethnic justice. She also serves as an ambassador for the Foundation's work, internally and externally, to multilateral institutions, governments, the media, academia, the private sector and civic leaders. She has represented Ford as a co-leader of the UN Generation Equality Forum Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence and has facilitated a five-year commitment from Ford towards gender equality in the amount of $420 million. She co-chairs a Gender Working Group at the OECD Network of Foundations and serves on numerous global boards. She no longer practices law but believes she has achieved what she has because of the strong foundation her legal background has given her.

Naylor has not forgotten where she has come from and continues to give back to the UWC Law Faculty where she sponsors two law student’s full tuition through the Canon Collins Education and Legal Assistance Trust.

“I believe in paying it forward and giving other students the chance I was given, because if you told me that this girl from Belhar would be a senior leader in a global foundation based in New York after she left UWC, I would have laughed at you,” says Naylor.

“I think I have come full circle. My interest in law was always grounded in an interest in social justice, and now I am working in gender equity and social justice, albeit in a different way.”