PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Chief Justice (Rwanda)
By Muthoka Mutie, Ph.D.
In a country where nearly half of all members of parliament are women and with many women achieving greater recognition and visibility in various socioeconomic fields, being a Supreme Court Justice may seem readily attainable for a woman. However, what Justice Aloysie Cyanzayire achieved in the justice system in Rwanda from 2003 to 2011 has left a mark in women’s history and what women can achieve, especially in East Africa. Born on February 11, 1964, Cyanzayire is an eminent judge who presided over the Rwandan Supreme Court. She is the eldest child in a Christian family of eight with hardworking parents who pushed her to work hard with diligence and endurance. She succeeded in school in an era when access to education for girls was difficult.
Cyanzayire performed well in school and originally wished to pursue economic studies; instead, at the end of high school in 1983, she decided to study Law, and graduated in 1989 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from the National University of Rwanda. Her motivation to study law came from her admiration of the judges she saw during her internship at the Court of Cassation in her first year of license. At that time, she saw few women in the profession and never thought she could enter the judiciary herself. Studying law was not particularly challenging for Cyanzayire. However, women faced particular challenges while attending law school. First, very few women were enrolled in the faculty of law and due to the limited number of secondary school offering university access for women. Second, the areas of study for women were limited; most schools were oriented towards professions like secretaries, teachers, nurses, social workers with only one scientific school for girls.
In 1990, Cyanzayire began an outstanding career in the judiciary when she was appointed Judge of the Court of First Instance. At the time, only 1% of the judiciary consisted of women judges. Propelled by the desire to dispense justice to the aggrieved people, she found her true love in working as a judge. After one year of work, she passed a competition to enter the National School of Magistrates, International Section, in Paris, where she spent two academic years from 1991 to 1993. She received her post-graduate diploma in judicial matters, allowing her to enter into the category of professional judges. Her interaction with experienced judges increased her love and appreciation of her work.
Cyanzayire’s legal career has been by many achievements. She served many roles in the Ministry of Justice, first as Director of Public Prosecutions and relations with the Judicial Services, then as Director of Legal Drafting, and finally as Secretary-General of the Ministry. She assumed these functions from 1995 to 2000, just after the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. At the time, the judicial and political structures had to be rebuilt from scratch. The main task was to put the Judicial System back in service by quickly recruiting and training judges and judicial staff to restart the activities of the Courts and Tribunals.
In her role as the Director of Legal drafting, she initiated and drafted laws that allowed for the trial of genocide suspects. She also worked for the reconstruction of Rwanda, including actions such as the abolition of discriminatory laws against women and in the drafting of laws allowing women to have the right to succeed as men and the mobilization of women to enter the judiciary. As the Secretary-General, Cyanzayire coordinated and supervised all the technical work of the Ministry with precision.
Cyanzayire’s work as Vice President of the Supreme Court and President of the Gacaca Jurisdictions Department from 2000 to 2003 was instrumental in shaping not only the justice system in Rwanda but also the country’s entire socioeconomic spectrum. The Department of Gacaca jurisdictions (also called 6th Chamber), was one of the Departments created within the Supreme Court with a mission to organize the establishment and operation of Gacaca Courts across the country to try perpetrators of the genocide against the Tutsis.
Due to Cyanzayire’s focused and visionary leadership as Chief Justice from 2003 to 2011, she oversaw the implementation of the reforms of the judicial system in Rwanda. Under her leadership, she implemented the findings of an ad hoc Commission which redesigned the legislation outlining the judiciary which ultimately required a deep reform of the judicial system. These reforms have permitted a professionalization of the Rwandan judicial system by allowing only lawyers to take on judicial positions, contrary to the previous rules which allowed non-lawyers as well to take the position These reforms also modernized the system by improving infrastructure, equipment, and new information technologies used in the judicial system.
Cyanzayire also played an important role in the fight against injustice and corruption when she served as the first woman to hold the Office of the Ombudsman starting in June 2012 through August 2017. She proposed and implemented anti-corruption strategies and coordinated investigation and prosecution of corruption and related offenses by managing complaints from citizens. She advised the government and other public and private institutions to strengthen and improve their policy of prevention and fighting corruption. Her work strengthened good governance in all institutions. She highlighted weaknesses of the operations and followed up on the implementation of the code of ethics of politicians and leaders.
Cyanzayire overcame many challenges on her road to success and gallantly triumphed over those that fate threw on her path. She first faced challenges in ensuring that as a judge she ruled not only according to the law but with results that produced justice as well. She noted that law and justice were two different things and one could apply the law but fail to do justice. A judge is often in front of people who hide the truth from them, so she took time to weigh her decision and search for the truth. Cyanzayire applied the law and relied on the wisdom of God who always guided her and she considered the consequences of her decisions.
The biggest challenge Cyanzayire faced was rebuilding the destroyed judicial system after the 1994 Genocide with very limited human and material resources. Cyanzayire admitted that it was not easy to combine work, family, and a social life while maintaining a successful professional career. She made sacrifices to her family to move her country forward, and she had a husband who understood the demands of her job and did his best to support her at home.
Alongside this illustrious career in the judiciary, Cyanzayire also served on various committees including the African Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities; the Association of Institutions responsible for the fight against corruption in African countries members of Commonwealth; and the National Advisory Council. Cyanzayire has also been recognized for her various contributions to the field of law. She received a Recognition Certificate by Women Leaders Network in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion for her work as Chief Justice; an Appreciation Award by the East African Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities for her service as Vice-Chairperson of the Association; and an Appreciation Award from the Rwandan Association of Judges and Magistrates for her service as Chief Justice.
Cyanzayire has made a remarkable impact in the Rwandan legal fraternity and has led an illustrious professional career as a leader, judge, civil servant, wife, and mother. Her visionary leadership has and continues to shine a light for many women not only in Rwanda but also in the East African region.
** Personal interview with Chief Justice Cyanzayire in May 2020. Transcript on file with author.
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