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Empowering Women Judges for Lasting Judicial Transformation in Kenya

Anne Tierney Goldstein | Published on 8/29/2023

Kenya Trip 2
In July 2023, I traveled with IAWJ Program Director Jane Charles-Voltaire to Nairobi, Kenya to participate in a program planning workshop with the IAWJ-Kenya Chapter (IAWJ-KC) leadership. Our purpose was to partake in a program planning workshop in collaboration with the IAWJ-KC leadership. This collaborative effort aimed to define and map out the WILIL mentorship initiative in Kenya.

A highlight of the trip was visiting the Supreme Court to meet with Chief Justice Martha Koome, the first woman Chief Justice of Kenya. CJ Koome has been involved with IAWJ for more than 20 years; she became a trainer in the IAWJ’s Justice of Equality Program (“JEP”) in approximately 2002. Then-Judge Koome and I co-facilitated a train-the-trainers workshop for Kenyan judges in Mombasa in 2009, when she was a senior trainer in the JEP program, and I was IAWJ’s Director of Human Rights Education. We had stayed in touch and seen each other at assorted conferences over the years, though not met in person since she had become CJ.

The IAWJ extends an invitation to our esteemed members and associations to share their compelling stories about the enduring impact of the Jurisprudence of Equality programs on a personal and a professional level, and on their respective justice systems.

A brief word about JEP will provide context for this story because the program illustrates how IAWJ operates. At the substantive level, JEP was designed to equip – and did, in fact, equip – judges (both female and male) to use international and regional conventions in cases involving discrimination or violence against women in cases that came before their domestic courts. At the strategic level, JEP trained and credentialed the women judges who led the program as experts on international law and its application in domestic courts, as well as on women’s property rights, widow’s inheritance rights, child sexual abuse, links between HIV-AIDS policy and gender-based violence, or whatever other substantive issues JEP trainings focused on. The central insight of IAWJ’s founder, Arline Pacht, was that women judges were underrepresented in national judicial training institutes (JTIs) and other venues where judges build reputations. Women judges did not get as many invitations to give lectures, and then were denied slots as trainers because of their lack of experience as lecturers. The aim of JEP, then, was not only substantive (training judges on gender international law) but just as importantly, strategic -- giving judges the credentials that would enable them to take slots at JTIs, as well as to stand out on their colleagues’ radar in ways that had not previously happened. We wanted the “old boys’ network” to encounter women in leadership roles, so that they would be more likely to think of them the next time they were asked to recommend a judge to give a talk to their alma mater, rotary club, etc.

Sitting in the room with now-Chief Justice Koome, surrounded by the leadership of IAWJ-KC members, I thought of this strategy when Martha told us why she had applied for the position of CJ.  She knew that the interviews for the position would be nationally televised, and she learned that none of the other senior women judges were applying for the position. Many – perhaps all – of the women judges assumed that at the end of the process the position would go to a man. None of the others had put her name forward.  Martha was concerned that this meant that the citizenry would think that the only qualified candidates were men; she explained that she put her name in because she wanted Kenyans to know that their country’s judicial system produced women who were fully qualified to serve as Chief Justice, even if, in the end they did not get the job.  Then she paused and smiled: “And as it happened. . . I got the job.” 

Kenya Trip 3
I thought of how thrilled Arline would have been to hear this story.  I thought of how wise she was to see the importance of being in the room – that sometimes, “as it happens”, when you are in the room you get the job.   

CJ Koome envisions a judiciary that serves as an instrument of social transformation. She told us that she saw her experience in JEP as a pivotal “game changer” in her deepened understanding of gender inequality issues. Her narrative highlighted the resounding impact of the JEP program on herself and other stakeholders in the justice sector. This training proved instrumental in shaping her insights as well as guiding justice sector participants in their endeavors to develop and enforce laws addressing gender-based violence. The JEP program's principles contributed, she told us, to the shaping of progressive legal frameworks in Kenya including the 2010 Constitution.  

Furthermore, Chief Justice Koome shared strategies for cultivating an empowered judiciary, including initiatives seeking to bolster the advancement of women judges within their careers and encourage their pursuit of leadership positions. Chief Justice Koome's own journey underscored the importance of visibility and sponsorship of women judges. Her application for the position of Chief Justice was driven by the dearth of women candidates (none other than herself). Her intention was to demonstrate that qualified women were indeed contenders. Her eventual appointment exemplified both the need for and the triumph of representation. 

CJ Koome’s testimony resonated with the stories we heard from IAWJ-KC members during that week. These narratives underscored the hesitations that often deter qualified women from stepping forward for leadership roles. It highlighted a broader phenomenon, wherein the fear of the "risk" of visibility can hinder the pursuit of deserved positions.  

Chief Justice Koome's journey and the collective experiences of the IAWJ-KC members serve as a powerful testament to the far-reaching impact of the IAWJ's work over the decades, laying the foundation for a more equitable and inclusive judicial system.  

In collaboration with IAWJ-KC, the WILIL mentorship initiative aligns with Chief Justice Koome's vision of promoting sociala transformation. Together, we aspire to cultivate an environment of inclusivity, offering unwavering support to women judges and propelling judicial transformation under her distinguished leadership. The driving force behind this initiative is the visionary insight of IAWJ-KC's current leadership. Their appreciation of the growth gap for Kenyan women judges has sparked the need for mentoring and upward mobility opportunities, culminating in this transformative project with IAWJ.