Mind the gap: Women in law and leadership across Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Jarpa Dawuni

10 August 2022

“Given the dearth of research on women in law in Africa, this project builds on, and tests matri-legal feminism, a theory I developed for studying African women in law,” said Jarpa Dawuni of the Department of Political Science, Howard University. “The initial findings show an increase in the symbolic representation of women, but also highlight covert and overt challenges and barriers women continue to face as actors within the legal professions.”

Stias Fellow Jarpa Dawuni during her seminar on 4 August 2022

STIAS fellow Dawuni was reporting on her book project on women in law across Africa based on qualitative fieldwork conducted in seven countries. It’s an area about which too little is known. “It was a needle in a haystack when I started my research 11 years ago. An arid land with no information. I couldn’t find anything other than a few studies on South African women.”

“In 2016 when I published my first co-edited book, Gender and Judging in Africa: From obscurity to parity?, I self-doubted that no other book existed on the topic. African women were taking up international judiciary positions – for example, most of the female judges on the International Criminal Court come from Africa, the first woman from the African continent, to sit on the bench of International Court of Justice (ICJ) was Ugandan, and Ghana and Nigeria appointed their first women Chief Justices before their coloniser, the United Kingdom did, – but we knew nothing about these developments.”

The book will follow on Dawuni’s previous publications and will specifically trace and analyse women’s presence in the legal professions across Africa, focusing on the bar, the bench and the legal academy in Africa— three major branches of the legal profession which remain male-dominated. It aims to understand how women’s presence and participation in the professions is affected by historical positioning (precolonial, colonial and post-colonial contexts) race, class, age, ethnicity and other identity categories.

Across not in

Dawuni is, however, very conscious of the need to move away from problematising Africa as one country and one narrative. “Many still see Africa as a country not a continent,” she said. “I want to bring home that it’s a continent with a large area and population, and rich histories and narratives. I don’t want to reproduce prevailing narratives but consistently deconstruct African homogenisation. I’m looking to write about the current lived experiences of women in law across not in Africa. I know that I cannot realistically cover the whole continent, but I will be drawing from all regions of the continent to paint a continental picture as accurate as I possibly can.”

She is also aiming to present a story. “Indigenous African storytelling informs my work,” she said. “Lawyers tell stories – if it’s a good one, they get a judge on their side. In the same way, good researchers must be adept at presenting their research in a way that is easy to understand—that is what I aim to do in my research.”

And telling the story means having the right questions, methodologies and theoretical frameworks. “It means deciding what questions should be asked, who do I talk to, how and when do I talk to them, and how do I centre their experiences using the technique of legal narratives and critical feminist theory?” explained Dawuni.

Using a comparative analytical framework, Dawuni engaged in a continent-wide critical investigation and comparison of women’s entry into the legal professions across Africa, with a focus on seven case studies namely Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, The Gambia, Kenya, Cape Verde and Ivory Coast where she conducted over 200 in-depth interviews and five focus groups. “Drawing on socio-legal approaches, and anchored in post-colonial feminist critique, I build on my earlier theory of matri-legal feminism as an analytical framework for studying issues of women, gender and the law across Africa.”

Her matri-legal feminist framework is still being refined and it’s her hope that her interactions with STIAS colleagues will strengthen it. Drawing from Black feminist standpoint theory is about unpacking the post-colonial lived experience – both positive and negative – of African women alongside African notions of matriarchy, legalism and feminism. “I’m looking at the ways in which matriarchal systems have allowed women to have agency in communities but still remaining very mindful that there is no one African woman – all are different and experience life differently.”

Overall Dawuni’s preliminary findings have shown that history matters and the cultural context is crucial. “The positions of lawyers across Africa are not divorced from the colonial legal systems,” she said. “Indigenous and customary systems of law were upended by colonial law but different countries were affected differently.”

And although there are many examples of successful women in law across the continent, Dawuni points out that it’s not all a beautiful story. There are many challenges including gender-based harassment, pay and promotion gaps, work-life balance, and barriers to leadership that women in law face.  Although future prospects look good there are institutional, structural and individual barriers to success with ethnicity, language, religion, sexual identification and marital status all having an impact.

“Whether in the domestic or international arena there is also often dirty politics involved,” she added. “In vying for leadership positions at the domestic level, or judicial appointments at the international level, some women were so bruised from the experience they wouldn’t talk about it.”

Addressing the challenges women face in law requires a collective effort. “We have to focus on the male judges too. All have to be part of the solution.” Dawuni considers herself a scholar-activist who believes in translating research into actionable changes in society. That explains why she created the non-profit organisation the Institute for African Women in Law to provide support to women in law through research, training, advocacy, and mentoring.

Dawuni also spoke to the challenges she has encountered in the research process. “My own positionality – as an insider/outsider – as a lawyer/researcher, and located in two spaces – born in Ghana and living in the US. As a researcher, I have to be conscious of how these identities and positionalities affect my subjectivity/objectivity and perceptions. You also have to be conscious of the power relations in interviews – including the challenge of language and interpretation, generational and cultural sensitivities. I have to be careful how I tell the narrative—by balancing the rigour of academic research while centring the voices of the subjects I study—that, to me is feminist research.”

“It’s also not about writing a story to glorify these women,” she continued. “It’s about telling a good and theoretically grounded story and the reader can decide how objective it is.”

Overall her hope is that young women and girls interested in the field will read the work. “I want to echo the words of Judge Julia Sebutinde at the ICJ, and say to them – it doesn’t matter whose face is currently on the wall, you are here now and you have a right to be here, to be heard, and to be read.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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