At 17, Mawani left East Africa to attend law school in England and gain the tools to begin her fight for justice. She qualified as a barrister and was called to the bar in London in 1968, but soon found her profile, as a woman with dark hair from outside the establishment, made it too difficult for her to practice in court chambers. She ended up retraining and qualifying as a solicitor, enabling her to work behind the scenes.
“The irony was that I would then meet clients and brief other barristers—white males approved by the establishment—who would then plead for my clients in court, using my research and my legal advice!” she recalled in 2004, during a convocation address at the University of Ottawa, which awarded her an honorary doctorate.
In 1982, Mawani moved with her husband and two children to Vancouver, began practicing law and jumped straight into public service. As vice chair of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and chair of the Ismaili Council’s Women’s Portfolio, she was part of a group of women who started the World Partnership Walk in Vancouver in 1985.
They came up with the idea because they were concerned for women in developing countries who walked “for miles and miles” to get wood for fires or water for cooking and cleaning.
“How do you express solidarity with the women and the girls who were doing this all the time, every day from the time they wake up at four and five in the morning?” she asks. “We will walk with them. That’s how it all started.”
Mawani remembers reaching out to politicians in the early years. An appearance by Canada’s Minister of Defence, Kim Campbell, who later became prime minister in 1993, elevated the walk’s status.
Within three years, the World Partnership Walk spread to Canada’s other major cities. Today, it’s held in 10 cities across Canada and raises millions of dollars annually to combat poverty in developing countries.
The turning point for Mawani’s career came in 1986, when a partner at her law firm recommended her for a position on the Immigration Appeal Board.
When it was replaced in 1989 by the Immigration and Refugee Board, an independent administrative tribunal that makes decisions on thousands of immigration and refugee cases annually, Mawani was appointed deputy chair. In 1992, she became the first female chairperson.
During her tenure, Mawani pushed for the rights of women and minorities around the world.
She used her seven-year term to address a lesson from her childhood—that sometimes access to opportunity is not enough if an individual or group comes from a disadvantaged situation.
She discovered this while tutoring fellow students in school: some of her classmates didn’t grow up surrounded by books in their houses like she had, or with parents who placed emphasis on education.
Her landmark achievement was the creation of gender-based guidelines for refugee claimants, making Canada the first country in the world to recognize as refugees those fleeing gender-based persecution, such as domestic violence, forced abortions and female genital mutilation. Other countries followed Canada’s lead.