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The 17th International Association of Women Judges Africa Regional Conference was hosted in Kampala, Uganda from October 25 – 28, 2022. The conference was organized jointly by the International Association of Women Judges and the National Association of Women Judges – Uganda (NAWJU). The Honorable Lady Justice Henrietta Wolayo, President of the NAWJU delivered the welcoming remarks, highlighting the history of the IAWJ and the importance of women’s representation. Next, Honorable Lady Justice Hannah Okwengu discussed the importance of women in the judiciary, highlighting that courts must be representative of society and women are able to bring a unique perspective of their lived experiences to judicial roles.
Doctor Roswitha Kremser of the Austrian Embassy represented the Development Partners and first acknowledged the work women judges have done to advance human rights in Africa. She additionally noted how the COVID-19 pandemic increased difficulties in access to justice for women and girls and how integral the judiciary ought to address these issues. Ms. Jan Beagle, Director General of the International Development Law Organization, highlighted the positive impacts of women in the judiciary, such as improving the legitimacy of courts by reflecting the population served, bringing unique perspectives to cases, and providing representation that can inspire younger generations.
The Chief Justice of the Republic of Uganda, His Lordship Alfonse Chigamoy Owiny-Dollo, emphasized the importance of the conference as a space to share best practices to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at a time where these crimes have been increasing worldwide. He also recognized the unwavering commitment of the judiciary of Uganda and recognized the NAWJU for bringing together women judges to discuss serious cases of SGBC and trafficking in persons.
Completing the opening remarks for the conference, H.E. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of the Republic of Uganda, advocated for gender equality through foundational steps such as universal, free education for children, ensuring economic development, and creating additional avenues for women to acquire land. President Museveni emphasized that both societal values and laws must be changed to reduced barriers to gender equality.
Next, Honorable Lady Justice Martha Koome of the Supreme Court of Kenya gave a poignant keynote address acknowledging the barriers women face in both joining the judiciary and advancing within it. Honorable Lady Justice Koome’s discussion blended her own personal experience in the judiciary and emphasized the importance of collaboration to promote both legal and social change. She also discussed the difficulties women face in to conform to male norms in leadership positions, advocating for further representation of women in leadership positions to change these exclusionary norms. Finally, the Honorable Lady Justice Koome noted several ways in which the judiciary is challenging barriers to women and gender equality including the Building Bridges Initiative, education for communities about their legal rights, and interventions to expedite family conflicts that appear before the court.
Finally, a panel session entitled Breaking the Barriers: Focus on Enhancing Community Justice Systems took place with two esteemed panelists. First, Doctor Consolata Kabonesa, an Associate Professor at Makerere University’s School of Women and Gender Studies, offered an academic perspective on breaking barriers to gender justice. Dr. Kabonesa discussed the legal, social, and personal barriers women may face in accessing justice, focusing in particular on how the rule of law means very little to women and girls who are unable to navigate legal institutions, especially when they reside in rural areas and lack education about legal processes.
Dr. Kabonesa continued by outlining the importance of an inclusive process for law formation which includes engaging with informal systems of customary law, allowing religious and community leaders to participate, and critically assessing discriminatory legal structures. She concluded by advocating for cooperation with educational institutions which can conduct gender training and awareness programs to better educate communities.
The second panelist, Honorable Lady Justice Solomy Balungi Bossa, Judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC), presented her paper which focused on how the ICC incorporates a victim-centered approach and seeks to repair the harms suffered, rather than a traditional justice system approach which focused primarily on deterrence and punishment of the offender. Honorable Lady Justice Bossa also discussed the limitations of the ICC framework, such as challenges to jurisdiction, lengthy proceedings, and a risk of retraumatizing victims if judges fail to adhere to the victim-centered approach. Possible reforms include outreach programs to sensitive all justice sector players and increase the understanding and correct identification of sexual and gender-based crimes.
The day concluded with a plenary session with the Honorable Lady Justice Koome, Dr. Kabonesa, and Honorable Lady Justice Bossa. Honorable Lady Justice Koome was asked what the most challenging aspect of her career has been, and she responded that balancing her career with societal expectations of motherhood has been most difficult. She detailed her experience in university where she would return home over the weekend to cook, wash clothes, and then come back to school for classes.
Three panelists shared their research and experiences on the topic of Justice Delivery in SGBV Cases: Working Towards a Peaceful Society; Sharing Experiences. Justice Rosslyn shared some resources and laws that Kenya relies on when dealing with SGBV cases. One that really has made a lot of difference is the Evidence Act, which removed the mandatory corroboration provision. She shared that when she was a magistrate, they didn’t have all these victim shields, which resulted in a 2–3-year-old child being defiled. Finally, Justice Rosslyn outlined some of the challenges they face while providing justice to SGBV victims. Judge Ukuko started by describing the scope of SGBV in Tanzania. One of the most striking numbers involved the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country. Although there are actions, plans, acts, constitutional provisions, and policies in place for the prevention and eradication of SGBV, the law is silent in the areas where the core problem evolves from (e.g., marriage ideals, including age and marital rape). Finally, Justice Kwenandi, very bravely, shared that she was the victim of rape when she was just a girl, and how the system failed her, and the impact it had on her. This is her drive to be a lawyer—a judge. During the Q&A, a Lady Justice shared that one day her daughter told her that she had been raped, but she has not had the courage to ask her how even until today.
Honorable Lady Justice Rebecca Sittie, from Ghana, presented the topic, Emerging Issues in Youth Justice. Justice Sittie emphasized the importance of thinking about what is in the best interest of the child. She shared a case where a young girl, along with her parents, went to the police station to report a rape case. Instead of referring the girl and her mom to the social worker, who was available just on the upper floor, the officer started treating the girl badly, making her feel embarrassed. Thus, training police officers to avoid traumatizing victims is important. The problem should be tackled at its root, she said, by educating the community, mentoring children, and offering recreational activities. In Ghana, for example, there is a counseling department within the Ministry of Education. In her conclusion, she reiterated the importance of proper training at all levels for all the institutions involved in the juvenile justice system.
Dr. Zahara Nampewo, from Uganda, paneled on the topic of Disability and Mental Health: Safeguards and Challenges in the Justice System. Dr. Nampewo said, “disability inclusion is a prerequisite for equitable and sustainable evolvement.” First, the justice system should recognize the legal status and legal capacity of individuals with mental disabilities, because without it, “we are denying them their humanness.” The only barriers they face are those imposed by society, which prevents them from participating in society. Reasonable accommodation is imperative to allow people with disabilities to participate.
For the Strengthening Africa’s International Obligations on Child Rights and Protections: The Important of the Hague’s Children’s Convention, Honorable Lady Justice Baratang Constance Mokhomi outlined the critical articles in the Child Abduction Convention, and listed resources from The Hague for judicial officers to use in these cases. Dr. Onjoya Momoh emphasized the importance of joining these conventions because it provides a uniform international framework that equips judges tasked with making decisions about children; they provide the “practical machinery that gives effect to the obligations.” Dr. Momoh also said that the best interest of children is the primary consideration and the paramount consideration. Intercountry adoption may be considered as an alternative, and last resort, after trying and failing to find a foster or adoptive family in the country of origin, because intercountry adoptions are vulnerable to illicit practices.
During the Q&A, a participant shared an experience, where a white couple with three children of their own came to Uganda looking to adopt a Ugandan child—a 14-year-old boy. The judge asked herself where the parents of this child are, and why they wanted to give their child away for adoption. She was told they lived in a village far away and could not come to Kampala, but she insisted on wanting to see and talk to the parents even though she was getting all kinds of excuses (expensive, no transportation). The parents eventually came. The mother thought that the couple was only going to help them for a short period of time and the child would come back. She explained that the child would be taken away. The mother then said she didn’t want to give the child up for adoption. The takeaway is that practitioners should be very inquisitive in these cases, in order to know whether there is some foul play or aspects of poverty. “Improper consent” because parents don’t know the consequences. The white couple wanted to train the Ugandan child to play football. She repeatedly said that it is important to find out the real intentions of wanting to adopt, as well as wanting to give up your child for adoption.
Justice Roli Harriman presentation on How Technology is Abetting or Obstructing Gender Justice Delivery: Opportunities and Challenges highlighted the advantages and disadvantages of using technology in justice delivery, as well as its impact on crime. She quoted Professor Vincent Elis, “technology knows you more than you know yourself.” She shared a case in Lagos, where a girl was kidnapped, raped, and subsequently murdered. When the victim suspected she was in trouble, she started to record the activities of her captors and sent the videos to her friends via WhatsApp. Without this evidence, she thought, the victim’s whereabouts and the defendants would remain a mystery.
During the Q&A, the participants asking the questions were really interested to know how women from rural areas could benefit, if they don’t really have access to technology, and they are so isolated. Justice Harriman said researching the areas to find out the best way to incorporate the technology would be the first step, and that the IAWJ could intervene in the investigation. A participant shared a case where a lady was able to capture almost all aspects of the sexual harassment using her phone, and the woman received compensation from a settlement. However, she said, sexual harassment is covert, and it is very hard for victims to come out and produce or provide evidence that can be sustainable.
Marie Chantal Koffi paneled the Covid Pandemic: Continuity and Adaptation in the Justice Section Within the Context of Information Technology session, in which she described the different methods used during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was proud to say that during the pandemic, hearings were not interrupted because they were using video. The biggest challenge, however, was that the Penal Act in Côte D'Ivoire does not allow watching videos during the hearing sessions despite the evidence being available. They were advised to print, instead of watching videos. Videos would have been better, but the law didn’t allow it. Although the organization was different, the work was not disrupted. During the Q&A, participants from South Africa and Kenya shared how the courts in their countries adapted during the pandemic.
The session on Gender Responsive Adjudication in On-Line Gender-Based Violence Cases was paneled by Senior Magistrate Christine Nantege from Uganda. There are three dimensions of online gender-based violence: conceptual, temporal, and contextual. She brought to the participants’ attention two cases from across the world. One was from Brazil, where 12–15-year-old girls were rated according to their sexual behavior, and labeled as who is “the most whore,” and then this was posted online. This caused multiple suicides.
Another case was from Nigeria, where religious beliefs played a big role in the killing a woman university student by Muslim students because they felt the victim was “attacking Allah” after she responded to a post on a WhatsApp group. Cases in different countries in Africa have already been recognizing the importance of creating statutes criminalizing crimes that take place online. Magistrate Nantege finished her presentation by listing some good practices for judicial officers in handling Online GBV cases, including keeping an updated register of perpetrators, liaising with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), coordinating with ISPs to remove child sexual exploitation and abuse, looking beyond the national rape on law, avoiding letting prejudices affect responsibility in delivering justice, training law enforcement, adapting existing law or allowing flexible interpretation of the law.
The final day of the conference opened with keynote speaker, Honorable Justice David N. Batema, Judge of the High Court of Uganda, who spoke on Law Reform and Justice: Implementation of International Instruments with a Focus on Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Honorable Justice Batema discussed the benefits that UPR can provide. UPR is where United Nation (U.N.) member states review the compliance of other member states with international human rights instruments. Justice Batema emphasized that the UPR can be used to set an equal standard of review for all states. However, he also mentioned some drawbacks to the process such as political motivations in choosing delegations to represent countries and a general lack of knowledge of human rights instruments.
The next panel was Victim Centered Justice Processes in Trafficking in Persons and Labour Migration. The first panelist was the Honorable Lady Justice Elizabeth Juma, Magistrate of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Court, who discussed the importance of victim-centered approaches to investigation and justice for trafficking in persons (TIP) victims. Honorable Lady Justice Juma began with an overview of the Kenya Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act and then discussed the core principles of a victim-centered approach: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment.
Honorable Lady Justice Juma also noted the importance of raising awareness about re-traumatization of victims and how this can prevent victims from coming forward or engaging with judicial processes. Additionally, she discussed the importance of identifying TIP victims as victims and refraining from subjecting them to criminal convictions or treating them as though they are criminals. Finally, she highlighted the judicial bench book for labour trafficking in Kenya, noting how these instruments help to create awareness within the judiciary about these sensitive issues.
The second panelist, the Honorable Lady Justice Susan Okalany of the Uganda High Court, focused her discussion on victim-centered processes for trial, specifically surrounding those duties set forth by the Ugandan Constitution and international instruments for court proceedings. Because of the adversarial nature of legal systems in East Africa, Honorable Lady Justice Okalany notes that the law is primarily focused on the rights of the accused and there is very little about the rights of victims. However, there are various national provisions that offer some guidance about victim protections, including the protection of information and the requirement of an effective remedy. She discussed how victim-centered approaches are being explored and that there is discussion around legally mandating victim-centered approaches in SGBV courts. The victim-centered approach is important for TIP victims because of the coercion, stigma, guilt, and exploitation these victims suffer.
These panels closed with a plenary session with Honorable Justice Batema, Honorable Lady Justice Juma, and Honorable Lady Justice Okalany. Audience questions were particularly focused around the difficulties in prosecuting trafficking cases, particularly when the cases involve child victims and where victims are particularly vulnerable due to power imbalances between the victim and perpetrator. The speakers, in their answers, emphasized the need for multi-sectoral trainings and more inter-agency cooperation during investigation and prosecution of TIP cases. Additional discussion also focused on how to ensure that child victims are not re-traumatized and are comfortable testifying in court.