Advocate for international women’s rights

Annie Bunting’s prodigious and varied accomplishments speak to a person of great energy and optimism who, through her research and writing, has worked toward finding a space within 21st-century feminism in which women from all cultures and ethnicities can be heard.

Left: Annie Bunting

Bunting earned an LLB from York’s Osgoode Hall Law School in 1988, an LLM from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and an SJD (doctor of juridical science) from the University of Toronto. She is now coordinator and professor in York’s Law & Society Program, Faculty of Arts, teaching in the areas of social justice and human rights.

“But it hasn’t been a straight line,” says Bunting of her academic career. A poverty law internship at Osgoode’s Parkdale legal aid clinic led to an interest in social issues. “I hooked up with a great group of mature students, worked summers for Shelley Gavigan and Jim Hathaway and became involved in the founding of the women’s division at Osgoode’s Community & Legal Aid Services Program.”

Bunting’s academic coat of many colours has included work with a variety of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Human Rights Foundation and the Legal Education & Action Fund (LEAF). As a consultant, she has given workshops for judges on race, culture and religion in custody-and-access cases.

In 2002, Bunting received a York University Faculty of Arts Fellowship for research on cross-cultural conflicts in Canadian family law. She is almost finished the research project, Mediating Cultures, Arbitrating Family Disputes: the Proposed Sharia Tribunals in Ontario, funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada. The debate in Ontario over the status of Sharia law highlighted Bunting’s research and brought her into the media spotlight.

“I had my fifteen minutes,” quips Bunting. “The family law system and our Canadian legal system in general should be flexible and robust enough to allow someone who wishes to negotiate their separation agreement with the assistance of a mediator in their community to do so.”

Undergraduates see Bunting as coordinator of the Law and Society Program, Division of Social Sciences of the Faculty of Arts. She advises 1,100 students, teaches two courses and is broadening a primarily Canadian focus to include more international topics. “Teaching and being a good teacher are extremely important,” says Bunting. “For me this means bringing my research into the classroom and valuing the perspectives that students bring into the classroom.”

Graduate students and colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and at Osgoode see her as an academic tackling the complex and potentially controversial subject of early marriage — or child marriage — in Africa and Asia. It is in this field of international law that her real work lies.

Bunting is a member of a wide and diverse international community of women who advocate for women’s empowerment on many fronts. In her field work, she is painfully aware of her privileged status. She recalls a visit to a hospital in Nigeria. “It felt like I was sent back to a different era where I was a colonial administrator visiting and they related to me as if I were a donor. I was very uncomfortable at being treated as if I had done anything to alleviate their poverty, their illness. And I was ashamed at how they were just grateful someone took an interest in their lives.”

Nevertheless Bunting’s research relies on sharing insights and information with African front-line workers and activists. At the 2003 conference in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where delegates drafted the Declaration on Child Marriages, “I was the only non-West-African there” and grateful to be “allowed to work with the delegation from Northern Nigeria,” she remembers.

Bunting’s research has taken her to northern Nigeria, the Western Cape in South Africa, Burkina Faso and Rwanda but she is only just starting. “There is more to be studied in northern Nigeria and West Africa and far in my future lies something around early marriage in India, where there has been strong advocacies from the early 1920s,” she says.

Bunting is also associate editor of the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, founded by Osgoode doctoral student Shadi Mokhtari. She has co-written an article soon to be published by Stanford University Press in the collection Youth, Globalization and The Law. “I have a lot of balls to keep in the air.”

Article by YFile graduate assistant Chris Kurata, a York PhD candidate in English.