Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending an event entitled Breathing Life into the African Women’s Rights Protocol (the Protocol). It was part of the International Association of Women Judges conference which took place in London in early May.
The reception was hosted by Oxfam and The Lawyers’ Circle; it featured presentations by Lady Justice Hale (President of the IAJW) and Caroline Muthoni Muriithi (Convener of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition – SOAWR). I have to admit I was somewhat star struck to meet Lady Hale after years of admiring her wise judgments. The evening was concluded by lively discussion by other equally remarkable international Judges.
The Protocol itself is excellent and addresses issues which are not unique to Africa but common across the world; it is well worth a look: http://www.soawr.org/en/auprotocol/article/text. It covers issues that we take for granted such as the right to education, then issues such as the right to economic opportunities, which we see in boardrooms all over the UK and even in the Justices sitting in the Supreme Court. Lady Hale herself wondered the UK is perhaps in need of a similar Protocol?
The Protocol came into force in November 2005 and has been ratified by 33 of the 54 African states. The real issue however is the implementation of the law on the ground, ensuring women have the power to enforce their rights and have access to justice. There are numerous cultural hurdles to overcome from lack of information to the implementation of customary law, especially in succession law. What is required is a strong judiciary and that is exactly what I saw in the African judges present at this reception. The international and particularly African judges explained how they resourcefully applied the protocol and encouraged test cases to be brought to the higher courts to set precedents. Not only were they working in the court room but they were also going out in the communities at a grass roots level working to change attitudes, ideas and beliefs about gender roles and enabling women to gain power over their lives and live free from violence.