PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Judge, Court of Appeal (Cameroon)
By Jada Brand
Florence Rita Arrey is an amazing example of a woman pioneer. Arrey was born on May 18, 1948, in Cameroon, and while much of her early life is not publicized, she had an expansive career of being a first in many aspects. Much of Florence Rita Arrey’s career was focused on criminal justice and politics, specifically the judicial sector. Judge Florence Rita Arrey’s notable educational journey included attending secondary school at the Queen of the Holy Rosary College Okoyong (QRC Okoyong) in Cameroon. It was the first girls’ secondary school established in Cameroon by the Missionary Sisters from Ireland in 1956. The school is known for being the catalyst in dispelling the traditional ails of illiteracy, early marriages, and early childbirth that many Cameroonian girls were subjected to. It also has a great reputation for producing many successful professional women in multiple disciplines such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, civil servants, administrators, and of course great judicial figures such as Florence Rita Arrey.
Following the QRC Okoyong, Arrey attended post-secondary school at Cameroon College of Arts Science and Technology (CCAST) in Bambili. Judge Florence Rita Arrey attained her Bachelor of Law at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, and proceeded to attend the University of London Advanced Institute for Legal Studies where she obtained a diploma in Legal Drafting and a certificate in International Law. Finally, Arrey received a diploma in Magistracy from the National School of Administration and Magistracy, Yaounde.
Judge Florence Rita Arrey was a pioneer and had a career of notable firsts. To begin with, in 1974 Arrey was the first woman to be appointed to the State Counsel in Cameroon. She was subsequently appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1984. Following this accomplishment Arrey was appointed the first woman Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal in 1990. After serving as Chief Justice for ten years, in 2000, Judge Arrey was appointed to the Supreme Court of Cameroon. Florence Rita Arrey was an exceptional woman and embodied the spirit of being a pioneer. In addition to being appointed to the highest court of the land, Arrey also ruled on some landmark cases that changed the society and law of Cameroon. Arrey was heavily involved in cases that advocated for women’s rights to own property. For example, in Alice Fodje v. Ndansi Kette, a widow was given the right to inherit her husband’s property and in Ngongnassa v. Ngongnassa, the girl child was given the right of succession to her late father’s estate. These two cases were milestones in the attainment of equal rights for women in Cameroon. In addition to holding seats in such high places and changing the rights of women, Florence Rita Arrey has also been the president and vice-president of many illustrious institutions.
In 1994, Justice Arrey founded and presided as the vice-president of the Cameroon chapter of the International Association of Women Judges ( IAWJ). According to the IAWJ, their mission is to, “... promote and empower women judges who can help uproot gender bias, end discriminatory laws, advance gender-responsive courts and promote human rights for all.” When Justice Florence Rita Arrey founded the Cameroon chapter she had a few issues that she wanted to bring attention to. These issues included; the appointment of female judges to policy-making positions, overturning precedents prejudicial to women and harmful customs and traditions, judicial activism, and gender awareness for the Judiciary. With the appointment of female judges, Justice Arrey’s influence increased the percentage of female state prosecutors and Presidents of Courts to 40% in 1998 from a low percentage reflecting when there were only three women to have ever sat in the High Court.
In addition, along with other female judges, Arrey overturned the precedence that marriages were inherently polygamous which led to the dismantling of customary practices such as forced marriages and child marriages in Cameroon.6 Finally, through the IAWJ, Arrey and other Cameroonian members helped bring light to the issue of rape and domestic violence when there was no legislation in place for it. Justice Arrey was an influential figure in establishing and solidifying women’s rights in Cameroon. Arrey was also the President of the Cameroon Chapter of the Commonwealth Magistrate and Judges Association.
In 2003, Justice Arrey was appointed as an ad litem judge in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Nine years later she was elected as the vice-president for the ICTR. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is an international court that was established in 1993 by the United Nations Security Council. It was established to judge the people who were responsible for the genocide that plagued Rwanda in 1994. Other mandates of the court were to judge persons who committed serious violations of international law in Rwanda. Justice Florence Rita Arrey has had a career full of advocacy, empowerment, and progress. Her work has been noticed internationally and in 2011 she was named one of Cameroon’s most influential women. Influential indeed, Arrey was a pioneer who helped pave the way for powerful and influential women succeeding her.
Justice Florence Rita Arrey is a pioneer for countless reasons. When she began her legal and judicial career there were little to no women who she could identify as career role models. She became a standard of excellence as she advanced her career and established organizations that advocated for the women in her country. Her success in being appointed to several high courts of the land demonstrated her greatness. She did not stop when she became successful, she made room for more women to experience the success she did. She didn't create a seat at the table but made a whole new table for women to advance themselves and the society around them. Arrey recognized that great work needed to be done and she knew it had to be done through policy. With the help of other organizations and professional women, she paved the way for women to change the direction of their destiny. Justice Florence Rita Arrey is a pioneer in every sense there is, and so is her work and legacy.