PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Florence Ndepele Mumba
First Woman High Court Judge (Zambia)
By Alexia Nelson
On December 17, 1948 Florence Ndepele Mwachande Mumba was born in Monze, Zambia. Her father, Symon Donald Mwachande was from Malawi and her mother, Ira Lucy Somanje Mwachande from Zambia. Her parents had a primary school education and instilled Christian values in their six young children, of which Florence was the second oldest. All of them were sent to school. Florence began her early life in Peter Mainza Village in Chisekesi Monze. Due to the distance of the school from their village, Florence and her eldest sister were homeschooled by their mother for their first 2 grade levels of primary school. This enabled the sisters to learn to read and to write early on, and this allowed them to test out of the first two grades at Hanamaila Primary School in Monze.
Her family relocated when her father found employment in the mining town of Mufulira. The sisters subsequently transferred to Mufulira Central School. During this period, the mother also worked to supplement the family income by taking up farming and sewing clothes for sale. After two years of living in Mufulira, Florence and her sister moved to Kamuchanga Upper Primary School and continued their education to a level equivalent to Grade 8. Florence then attended Chipembi Girls Secondary School in the Central Province of Zambia that was run by Methodist Missionaries until January 1968 when she began studying at the University of Zambia.
Originally, Florence wanted to study theology, but the University did not offer it. She eventually decided to study law and registered at the Law School. Many of her friends advised her against it because law was perceived to be difficult and had a high failure rate. At that time, Florence was the only female in her class and received legal textbooks from some helpful, senior male students as they were hard to come by in Zambia. She was teased in her classes and told she did not belong as many of her lecturers did not feel women could qualify as lawyers. However, she found encouragement in knowing there was one lady who had completed her law studies, Justice Lombe Chibesakunda and another, Mrs. Gladys Mutukwa, who was in her second year. At the law school she excelled in moot court competitions. In 1972, Florence along with her classmate Mr. Isaac Dore, received a Silver Cup for coming second in the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition in Washington D.C. To this end, the University of Zambia Law School decided to name the Zambian Chapter of the Jessup moot competitions series after the two participants.
After completing Law school, Florence went to the Law Practice Institute to study for the Bar Exam. She qualified and was called to the Bar in March 1973. She was immediately appointed Counsel in the Ministry of Justice, where she prosecuted criminal cases. She then transferred to the Department of Legal Aid to assist the indigent population in all legal matters including civil and criminal cases. Initially she received push back from some of the clients who did not want a woman as their counsel. She had to gain their confidence. After a year's experience, she was able to enjoy her work and learn about challenges, conflict with the law, and humanity from her clients. She noted “I also got to learn that however heinous some of the crimes appeared to be, those who perpetrated them and ended up in court, were just as human as everybody else. They needed support and not ridicule.These lessons made me even more determined to pursue criminal law as a field of study.” (International Courts and the African Woman Judge, 2018).
At the beginning of her career, Florence married Fleming Sunday Mumba on 14 December 1974, they went on to raise four children.
In October 1980, Florence Mumba was appointed the first woman judge in the High Court of Zambia. As High Court Judge, she handled civil (family law, contract, inheritance law, and property law) and criminal cases. In 1989, she became the first woman to be appointed to the office of Investigator-General Ombudsman. In this role, she investigated public officials based on complaints from the public. While serving in this position, Florence was elected as Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists in 1994. The following year she helped draft the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the establishment of a Court of Justice for Africa. Also, she worked in the UN Commission on the Status of Women where she and the rest of the Commission recommended that rape be included as a war crime.
The General Assembly accepted the recommendation. In 1997, Florence Mumba was appointed judge of the Supreme Court of Zambia and was also elected as Judge of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (UNICTY) by the UN General Assembly. She served as Vice-President of the Tribunal from 1999 to 2001. She was the first African woman judge to serve in that capacity. She was also an appeal judge of ICTY and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) from 2003 to 2005. Upon her return to Zambia, she went back to the Supreme Court. In 2008, she was appointed Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia for two years then returned to the Supreme Court. In 2009, she was appointed Reserve Judge of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Later, in 2012, she was appointed full time judge of the Supreme Court Chamber of the ECCC where she is currently serving.
Florence played a key role in introducing rape as a war crime as well as a crime against humanity in the statute of the ICTY in 1993. The first trial she presided over was the Furundžija case. It dealt inter alia, with the issue of rape as a formal crime. These Tribunals made it clear that the political power of elected officials does not mean they are above the law. Also, the MIFRTP states “as a Trial Chamber member, she sat on the bench in the Kupreskic et al; Milorad Krnogelac; Dragan Nikolic; Miroslav Deronjic and the case of Sefer Halilovic and presided over the following trials: The Prosecutor vs. Drazen Erdemovic; Dragojulb Kunarac et al., Milan Simic and Blagoje Simic et al. As Appeals Chamber Judge, she sat on various cases including Dusko Tadic, Zlatko Aleksovski; Tihomir Blaskic; Miroslav Kvocka et al.; Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez; Eliezer Niyitegeka; Juvenal Kajelijeli; Jean De Dieu Kamuhanda and Elizaphan and Gerard Ntakirutimana and the contempt proceedings instituted against Milan Vujin.
The more one reads about Florence Mumba, the clearer it becomes that she is not only a pioneer in her field, but an inspiration to all people, especially women. She fought from the very beginning to enter a profession she knew she was destined to be in, regardless of the disapproval and opposition from those around her. She also broke down many barriers by becoming the first woman to occupy positions hitherto dominated by males. She has more than proven her ability and has left a legacy of work that benefits humanity as a whole.
Florence Ndepele Mwachande Mumba. (2018). Women Judges in International Courts and Tribunals: The Quest for Equal Opportunities. In Dawuni, Josephine, and Akua Kuenyehia (Eds). International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives. Routledge.
“Ad Hoc Tribunals Oral History Project.” Florence Mumba | Ad Hoc Tribunals Oral History Project | Ethics Center | Brandeis University, (accessed February 2020).
“Judge Florence Mumba Sworn in as a Member of the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR.” Judge Florence Mumba Sworn in as a Member of the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR | Tribunal Pénal International Pour L'ex-Yougoslavie, (accessed February 2020)