PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First woman Chief Justice (Zambia)
By Janet Ilunga
On February 26, 2015, Justice Irene Mambilima became the first woman Chief Justice of the Republic of Zambia, having served earlier as the country’s first female Deputy Chief Justice from 2008-2015. Mambilima was born on March 31, 1952, in Chiwoko village, located in the Eastern province of Zambia, the first of five children. Her father, Kezias Chirwa, was a bricklayer and her mother, Nelia Ngulube, was a full-time housewife. Mambilima is married to Joseph Mambilima, a retired Major in the Airforce. Mambilima is also a mother of five and a proud grandmother of ten.
Justice Mambilima was raised in Matero, a township in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Matero is often known as “A City within a City”, comprised of mostly low-income groups. Mambilima’s upbringing among the poorest of the country in Matero is what ignited her desire for justice, leading her to a career in the legal profession. Mambilima went to Chingwele Primary School in Matero and then from 1967 to 1971 she attended Matero Girls High School for her Secondary School education. In 1972, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree at the University of Zambia, where she graduated with merit in 1976. Thereafter, she obtained a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree with merit from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1977.
In 1977, Mambilima proceeded to the Law Practice Institute (now known as the Zambia Institute of Advanced Legal Education) and obtained her practicing certificate as an advocate. While at the Law Practice Institute, she joined the Department of Civil Service Training as a learner legal practitioner. During this period, Mambilima worked at the Legal Affairs Ministry as well as at the Lands and Deeds Registry. She also worked at the Legal Aid Department (now known as the Legal Aid Board), which she later led.
Since her admission to the bar in 1977, Justice Mambilima has served in various government capacities. As a determined and hardworking legal practitioner, she was immediately recruited as a State Advocate in the Attorney General’s Chambers and rose through the ranks to Senior State Advocate. During this time, she also served in the international agreements department for four years (1980 – 1984). This position allowed her to advise the Government on loans and bilateral and multilateral agreements, as well as represent the Republic of Zambia as an alternate delegate at the United Nations General Assembly. After only seven years practicing the law, Mambilima proved herself and took the mantle as Director of the Legal Aid Board, serving as its first female Director. As director, she helped vulnerable individuals in society obtain pro bono legal advice and access to justice.
In December 1985, Mambilima joined the Judiciary of Zambia as High Court Commissioner before becoming a Puisne Judge only three years later. During her tenure as Judge-in-Charge of the High Court, Justice Mambilima spearheaded the review of the civil procedure rules and the re-introduction of court-annexed mediation. She also chaired an ad hoc Committee that proposed far-reaching structural changes to the Zambian Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Investigations.
After serving as Puisne Judge and as High Court Judge-in-Charge between 1989 and 1996, Mambilima was then elevated to the Supreme Court bench in 2002. She served the nation as Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) from August 2005 to March 2008, then ascended to the office of Deputy Chief Justice in 2008. As ECZ Chairperson, Justice Mambilima presided over the 2006 presidential and parliamentary general elections, the 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections, and the 2015 presidential election. She has also participated in election observer missions in Mozambique, Kenya, and Seychelles and has led the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) Election Observation Mission to the presidential elections in Liberia. Justice Mambilima served a second term at the helm of the Commission from 2011 to 2015 when she was then appointed Chief Justice of the Republic of Zambia.
Justice Mambilima has been a sought-after speaker at different judicial and electoral seminars and conferences, at which she has presented papers on election management, alternative dispute resolution, gender, and democracy, among others. She is a member of several professional associations, among them the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), the Zambia Association of Women Judges, the Council of Law Reporting, and Child Fund Zambia. She is also a prominent member of the regional organization Southern African Chief Justices’ Forum (SACJF) comprised of sixteen member states that concentrate on promoting democracy and the rule of law.
Mambilima has received various recognitions for her accomplishments. In 2019, the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) recognized Chief Justice Mambilima for her presentation on “Scaling Access to Justice through Technology” at the World Bank’s Law, Justice, and Development week. One of Justice Mambilima’s greatest passions is equal access to justice. Because she was raised by parents who believed in equal opportunities for their children, Justice Mambilima has made access to justice for vulnerable and marginalized groups her number one priority. Therefore, it came as no surprise that among her first tasks as Chief Justice, she launched the first fast-track courts dedicated to hearing gender-based violence (GBV) cases. The courts, which exist in six provinces in Zambia, have helped tremendously to raise awareness, boost confidence in women and girls to report cases of GBV, and successfully prosecute GBV cases. The number of GBV cases reported nearly doubled from 14,097 in 2013 to 22,073 in 2018, while cases withdrawn from court reduced significantly.
Justice Mambilima’s determination to achieve gender parity has been the hallmark of her leadership. Since ascending to the helm of the judiciary, Justice Mambilima has achieved 52% gender parity on the bench in the superior courts. In her own words:
“We are not there yet, but great strides are being made to narrow the gap...slowly but surely, we shall attain the optimum numbers, especially that females account for 52.3 per cent of the working population compared to males at 47.7 percent.”
To this end, Justice Mambilima actively participates in activities aimed at finding ways to alleviate poverty and increase access to justice. She is a firm believer that only when people are conscious of their rights can they come to court to assert those rights. Her message to women and girls that the key to empowerment is education has been consistent.
“Women are the most vulnerable...the highest levels of poverty are among women. The rate of literacy is lowest among the women. Women do not have resources to litigate and often do not know their rights . . . Women must be educated so that they can assert themselves.”
The impact of Justice Mambilima’s service and contribution to the development of law in Zambia has been enormous. As a trailblazer for many women and girls who aspire to reach positions of leadership, Chief Justice Mambilima epitomizes the spirit of hard work and humility, tempered with a sense of justice. For Justice Mambilima, access to justice can take different forms. She feels that the courts must be taken closer to the people, especially to rural and peri-urban areas, where low-income people reside and where courts are largely absent. She has also consistently advocated for the simplification of court procedures and that both adjudicators and support staff be more approachable.
“The procedures and evidential rules must be simplified or user-friendly to the litigants as this would go a long way in encouraging the general population, including women, to access the justice system. As it is, even an average enlightened person generally finds the court environment intimidating.”
Away from the bench, Justice Mambilima has also educated women in her local church on issues related to property and land rights. She has a deep conviction that education can open doors for many young people like it did for her. Mambilima appreciates that both men and women are the nation’s greatest asset and that if both are allowed to exploit their full potential, then they can contribute to national development.