Conference Focuses on Gender Justice in Africa

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Abdoul Kareem Savage, chief justice of the Supreme Court of The Gambia, with Gambian filmmaker and Brandeis alumna Mariama Khan, and Senegalese law professor Fatou Kiné Camara

December 8, 2008

From November 19-21, Leigh Swigart, director of Programs in International Justice and Society, participated in a conference in Accra, Ghana, titled “The Role of the Judiciary in Promoting Gender Justice in Africa.” The conference was organized by Partners in Gender Justice in Post-Conflict Societies, a group whose members include the International Legal Assistance Consortium, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Fund for Women, and the International Association of Women Judges. Brandeis University and the Ghanaian Judicial Service also collaborated in the planning of this conference.

In attendance were judges from 24 African countries, as well as representatives of civil society and international organizations. Judges also attended from Sri Lanka, the U.K., and the U.S. While some African judges have been active in promoting gender justice in their countries for some time – for example, those from Cameroon, Benin, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania – others were exploring these issues for the first time. In a presentation, Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, also a member of the Center’s advisory board, exhorted her fellow judges to ensure that gender justice becomes a reality in their countries.

“Decisions upholding gender justice may not make you popular,” she said. “But I am thanked now for decisions that were laughed at a decade ago in Sri Lanka. Today it is recognized that gender-based violence is a violation of women’s human rights."

The conference sessions focused on determining the various challenges that African women face in accessing justice, especially in cases of sexual violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination of various kinds. Panelists suggested models for confronting these challenges, including the use of alternative dispute resolution methods, specialized courts, intensive training on gender equity, and collaboration with civil-society organizations. They said that those who deal with different aspects of gender crimes in African countries – including judges, police officers, medical professionals, and prosecutors – need to be properly sensitized to the impact of these crimes on victims as well as the need to apply appropriate sentences to those convicted. Furthermore, cultural beliefs and practices, as well as lack of fluency in official languages, may discourage victims from pursuing justice through formal judicial procedures. Participants agreed that women in their countries must be assisted to overcome the barriers that keep them from accessing justice.

Some of the judges who attended the West African Judicial Colloquia also attended the gender justice conference. They included supreme court justices from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, and The Gambia. The Center also commissioned Brandeis alumna Mariama Khan (Sustainable International Development, 2008) of The Gambia to produce a film to premiere at the conference. Called Sutura: What Judges Need to Know about Rape and Justice in Senegal, the film features the voices of rape victims, lawyers, and psychologists, all speaking about crimes of sexual violence in Wolof, a widely-spoken Senegalese language. Testimony highlighted the reticence that rape victims have in reporting their crimes or pursuing their rapists, due to the cultural value placed on sutura, “discretion.” Legal experts interviewed in the film reported that Senegalese courts do not apply the international norms on gender equality and protection laid out in the various treaties signed by the Senegalese state, nor do judges sentence those convicted of rape to the minimum sentences required by Senegal’s own domestic laws.

Conference-goers praised the film and all took away a copy, subtitled in either English or French, to show in their home countries. Marima Khan has been awarded a “encouragement prize” for Sutura by the United Nations Population Fund Agency’s pan-African festival for films against gender violence.

The conference provided many opportunities for discussion among judges from the various regions of Africa. Each regional group produced an “action plan” on the final day that outlines short- and long-term activities that will establish gender justice in their countries. These plans, and a full report on the conference, are available at www.ilac.se (under Activities/Publications) and on the website of the UNDP Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

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Traditional women leaders from Ghana, known as "queen mothers," in attendance at the Gender Justice conference