PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Judge (Cape Verde)
By Britney Samuels
Vera Valentina Benrós de Melo Duarte Lobo de Pina also known as Vera Duarte is a human rights activist, poet, politician, and judge from Cape Verde. She was born on October 2, 1952, in São Vincente, an island in Cape Verde, located off the West African coast. In addition to becoming the first woman judge in Cape Verde, Vera Duarte was also the first woman to be appointed in 1993 as a Commissioner on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Duarte spent the majority of her childhood in Mindelo, the port city of São Vincente. In 2012, a Cape Verdean magazine, Nós Genti, revealed that her father, a renowned Mindelo trader, had a fondness for music and played the guitar and piano. He, being musically inclined, influenced her to be the same, ensuring that her passion for the arts was sparked at a young age. Duarte grew up around famous people from various professions and walks of life. Her father frequently invited friends and musicians from all over the island to play guitar or piano with them at their home. Prominent amongst such guests were Chico Serra, Cesária Évora, and Celina Pereira. Duarte was also influenced by after-school music lessons she took at Dona Bibi and Dona Lili's piano school. As a teenager, she attended Gil Eanes High School which is the oldest secondary school in Cape Verde. Duarte would later travel to Portugal to study at the University of Lisbon.
Duarte was always aware of her passions even when she was young. As a child in fourth grade when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she responded that she would be a lawyer. Upon arriving at the University of Lisbon, in October 1970, she participated in student movements and contributed to social causes which adequately prepared her for championing similar causes later on in life. Duarte would go on to become not only a lifetime activist but also the first woman judge in Cape Verde. She received her law degree in 1976, one year before her country gained independence from the Portuguese. This was no easy task considering that before this accomplishment women in Cape Verde generally did not hold many high positions in courts. She would accomplish these feats during an era of frequent political and social change in the country. Political and ideological changes have had a significant influence on its literary life. Cape Verde did not become a peoples’ republic, as did Angola and Mozambique. The Marxist-Leninist leanings of some politicians, militants, and engaged members of the intelligentsia did imbue the first phase of Cape Verdean independence with anti-colonialist cultural re-vindication, social protest, and revolutionary zeal. The political system, single-party governance, and single-party regimes put the brakes on literary creativity and productivity.
Despite this, Duarte advocated for an emphasis on literature and literary creativity in her 1994 presentation titled “The Cape Verdean Writer Today” which was delivered at the First Gathering of Cape Verdean Writers. Considering how influential Portugal’s colonial hold was on the country it is to no surprise that the majority of Duarte’s work is centered on human rights, female empowerment, and the importance of literature. After returning from Lisbon she moved to Praia the capital of Cape Verde and began work as Counselor Judge of the Supreme Court of Justice, after being General Director at the Ministry of Justice and Public Prosecutor in the Cities of Praia and Mindelo. Duarte also joined and worked with numerous organizations dedicated to improving the lives of women such as Cape Verde’s National Commission for Human Rights and Citizenship and as the first woman Commissioner and Chairperson of the African Commission on Humans and Peoples’ Rights from 1987 to 1999. She was awarded the North-South Human Rights Award from the North-South Center of the Council of Europe in 1995 as well as the Medal of Cultural Merit in 2005 during the 30th Anniversary of the Independence of Cape Verde.
Some people believe that the majority of Duarte’s long-lasting accomplishments came about during her time as Minister of Education although this could not be farther from the truth. Even before taking over the leadership of the Ministry of Education, Vera Duarte served as President of the National Commission on Human Rights and Citizenship. At that time, the Commission made a recommendation to the government for the Cape Verdean school curriculum to adopt the subject of Education for Citizenship, where all issues related to the civic education of students could be addressed. It was by luck, says Duarte, that the government accepted the recommendation and started the curriculum revision project. Duarte expressed it as ‘immense joy and a privilege to have contributed something so significant to the formation of more aware, respectful and interventional citizens for the country's development.’ Her work with the National Commission on Human Rights and Citizenship paved the way for the improvement in the curriculum of all Cape Verdean schools. Her actions brought a larger emphasis on civic education which in turn lead to more citizens with an advanced understanding of how their government works. Thus, creating generations of people who were knowledgeable about the on-goings of their country and were actively willing to make the necessary improvements. In an interview in 2008, Vera Duarte spoke about winning a literary competition as one of the defining moments that helped her decide she wanted to be a poet. Duarte asserted that the contest was the reason she received a beautiful letter of congratulations from Angolan writer Luandino Vieira who encouraged her to write.
The Cape Verdean writers Luís Romano and Arnaldo França noticed her as well and actively encouraged her to continue writing. At the unfolding of Duarte’s literary life, these three writers became her tutelar figures from the literary point of view. In 1981, she won the national poetry contest held by Cape Verde Women's Organization. In 1993, under the guidance of Arnaldo França, she published her first book of poems. Duarte utilized poetry as a means to communicate with people around her. She specifically made poems that other Cape Verdeans could relate to such as social issues and various types of love. She became one of the modern leading voices in Cape Verdean literature and poetry. This goes hand in hand with her philosophy that single-party regimes stifle literary creativity. For citizens of a country to be educated as well as passionate about the arts she has strong feelings they must be granted the freedom to do so. Duarte winning the competition solidified her position as a poet and gave her the confidence to continue writing as well as release her first book. Literature is just as important as other forms of activism because it can encompass and plant ideas of social change within the mind of an individual.
Duarte worked to change the minds of those around her in addition to improving the legal policies that impact the systems around them. She effectively helped to combat the numerous ways that people are oppressed within society. Vera Duarte spent the majority of her life participating in activism across various platforms. She dedicated a lot of time to trying to better her country and end the oppression that was affecting different communities and groups. She mainly focuses on the oppression perpetrated against women and communities without access to education. She has revolutionized many aspects of Cape Verdean society. Duarte was, and still is a pioneer in her multiple fields because she was often the first woman to enter certain spaces and enact changes in those spaces. She knew what changes needed to be made to improve the quality of life in Cape Verde. Duarte encouraged her fellow Cape Verdeans to not only fight for their rights but also to be creative while doing so. She equally channeled her energy between activism and poetry because she was aware that both could liberate people.