PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Retired Judge, International Criminal Court (Ghana)
By Nancy Henaku
Akua Kuenyehia is an eminent Ghanaian lawyer, academic, and human rights advocate whose impact on legal practice and education is evident at both the national and international levels. She was born on January 1, 1947, in Akropong, a town in the Eastern Region of Southern Ghana. Prior to her legal education, Kuenyehia attended the prestigious Achimota Secondary School in Accra, Ghana. She went on to attend the University of Ghana where she graduated with a Bachelor of Law degree (LLB, Second Class Upper Division) at the Faculty of Law in 1969. In 1970, she obtained a professional diploma and was subsequently admitted to the Ghana Bar in 1971. She then proceeded to Somerville College, Oxford University where she completed a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) in 1972. In 1972, Kuenyehia began her academic life as a lecturer at the Faculty of Law in the University of Ghana— an appointment that made her Ghana’s first woman law professor. In that same year, she began a lectureship position at the Ghana Workers College. Kuenyehia has made immense contributions to legal knowledge especially as it pertains to Ghanaian and African contexts; actively engaged with several organizations; contributed to socio-political discourse at the level of the Ghanaian nation-state; and occupied several important positions, all of which have made her a legal luminary in Ghana and beyond.
At the University of Ghana Faculty of Law, Kuenyehia rose to become a senior lecturer in 1985 and an associate professor in 1996. In 1996, she became the first woman to be appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Law, a position she occupied until 2003. In her position as Dean, Kuenyehia played a crucial role in laying the foundation for the establishment of a faculty exchange program between the University of Ghana Faculty of Law and the Northwestern University School of Law. The program, which concentrated on the legal status of West African women, was meant to “lead not only to new courses in Ghana but also to a number of reform efforts, such as collaboration on drafting a separate domestic violence code.” In 2001, she became the acting director of the Ghana School of Law. In 2013, she was inducted as the President of Mountcrest University College, a private university in Accra, Ghana. Kuenyehia has also occupied visiting academic positions in institutions outside Ghana, including Temple University, Imo State University, Northwestern University, Leiden University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught a range of courses including Public International Law, International Human Rights Law, Criminal Law, Women and Law, Contracts, Labor Law, and Health Law.
Her research is mainly focused on human rights, international law, and gender. Significantly, Kuenyehia’s work is regarded as part of the pioneering work on women and the law in Africa. Besides several articles on the subject of women and law especially (e.g., Women and Family Law in Ghana: An appraisal of property rights of married women; Distribution of Matrimonial Property on Dissolution of Marriage-A Reappraisal), Kuenyehia is also the editor of the books Women & Law in West Africa: Situational Analysis of Some Key Issues Affecting Women as well as Women and Law in West Africa: Gender Relations in the Family. She is also the co-author of Women and Law in Sub-Saharan Africa (with Cynthia Grant Bowman) as well as co-editor for International Courts and the African Woman Judge: Unveiled Narratives (with Dr. Josephine Jarpa Dawuni). She has spoken on a range of topics related to her research and career. At the 23rd Brigitte M. Bodenheimer annual Lecture on the Family at the School of Law in the University of California, Davis she spoke on the subject “Women, Marriage, and Intestate Succession in the Context of Legal Pluralism in Africa.” While Kuenyehia’s research suggests a significant expertise on women and gender issues, it is also important not to pigeonhole her scholarship for as she indicates, in response to questions for an application to the International Criminal Court (ICC): “I have legal expertise that goes far beyond violence against women and children.”
Kuenyehia’s legal education and career have been marked by all kinds of achievements, beginning in 1970 when she received the Mensah Sarbah Award for being the best student in Professional Law. In 1991, she received a Commonwealth Foundation Fellowship for distinguished scholarship. She was also a member of the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The highlight of Kuenyehia’s legal career is her pioneering role in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where she served as a judge from 2003 to 2015. Not only was she one of the eighteen judges elected by the Assembly of State Parties (ASP), she was also one of three African women elected to the ICC at its initial formation. She also became the first vice president of the ICC from 2003 to 2009, playing a pivotal administrative role during the formative stages of the court. In a post-appointment interview, Kuenyehia indicated: “For me, my election to this high office is a culmination of all the work I have done over the years, whether as an academic or as an activist. I also see it as a big opportunity to put all I have written about to good use.” This suggests that praxis is a crucial component of Kuenyehia’s legal career.
Kuenyehia’s experiences at the ICC have been crucial to much of her recent scholarship. In 2017, she was a speaker for the 36th Viscount Bennett Lecture at the University of New Brunswick’s faculty of law on the subject “Justice in a Conflicted World: Reflections from Judge Kuenyehia of the International Criminal Court.” In 2015, in her position as an international visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, Kuenyehia taught a three-week course titled “The ICC from the Perspective of an Appellate Judge.” Additionally, she was one of the prominent African lawyers to speak at a session focusing on “International Justice in Africa” at the International Bar Association Conference in Madrid in 2009. While at the University of Pennsylvania, Kuenyehia spoke on the topic “The Challenges Facing the ICC: The Africa Question.”Her discourse engaged African critiques of the International Criminal Court, calling into question suggestions that the ICC was a “neocolonialist Western organization lording it over poor African countries.” She argued that “the court doesn’t target anyone” and that “the fact that the court is operating in Africa is a result of a sovereign will...by each of those governments.” For her, the ICC’s work on African cases is “an attempt by Africa to put its house in order.” Kuenyehia’s rhetoric about the ICC provides insight into the complex negotiations of postcolonial agents, whether as judges or nation-states, within transnational jurisprudence.
Kuenyehia is affiliated with several organizations including, the Ghana Bar Association, International Bar Association, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA)—of which she served as president from 1986 to 989, the Women, Law, and Development Institute—of which she served as a board member from 1993, Institute for African Women in Law—of which she was a founding board member from 2016 to 2020, Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) —of which she is a founding member and was a board member from 1991 to 1998, International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development—of which she served as a board member from 1993 to 1997, Society for International Development, Ghana Association of Consultant, the African Association of International and Comparative Law.
Kuenyehia’s work extends beyond academe and legal practice. At the international level, she has worked in several capacities with organizations such as the United Nations and African Union. For instance, she worked with NGOs during the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. In her response to questionnaires for her ICC application, she explains that her role was to make sure “the Final document adopted recognized women’s rights as human rights.”
She also worked with the UN to report on State Party negotiations relating to the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). At the African Union level, she contributed in various ways to the drafting of the Additional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of women. This was to ensure “that the document is responsive to the needs of African women”. She also brought her experience on gender to the ICC. She, together with the second vice president of the ICC, organized “gender training” for judges in 2004 “to help [them] appreciate their gender responsibilities under the Rome Statute.” At the national level, Kuenyehia also contributed in several capacities. For instance, she helped with the establishment of the first Ghanaian legal aid center for grassroots women. She also conducted research that was central to legislation on violence against women in Ghana. In an interview, she explains: “I remember many years ago, when we started talking about violence against women. I was confronted by a high government official who said “Tell me...the number of women who are beaten in their homes. And I said, “give me time. I’ll tell.” So we set up an institution. We did a national research throughout the country in collaboration with the police, social services...we collaborated with the whole of society...and we came up... that three out of ten women on the average are beaten by...that was the genesis of the legislation on the violence against women that came up and since then a lot has been done...there is the special unit, the DOVVSU and all that.” (TV3 Network).
She has been recognized both locally and internationally for her numerous contributions to the field of law. In 2003, she received an Honorary Meritorious Service Award from the University of Ghana. In 2013, the Faculty of Law building at the University of Ghana was named after her and John Evans Atta-Mills, Ghana’s former president who was also a law professor. Plans for the building began with Kuenyehia who helped source funds for the building when she was dean of the faculty. Her children created, “in her honor”, the Akua Kuenyehia Foundation, an organization that focuses on the “development and empowerment” of Ghanaian women.” She has also been recognized as “an inspiring lawyer” by the London South Bank University. In 2016, she was a recipient of an honorary degree for “distinguished international leadership and statesmanship” from the University of Ghana, and in 2017, she was a recipient of the African Genius Award (Leadership category). She is an honorary fellow of Somerville College, Oxford University. She is the subject of Nkiru Nzegwu’s “Judge Akua Kuenyehia: First Vice President” and Josephine Jarpa Dawuni’s “Akua Kuenyehia: Leaving a Mark Along the Journey for Human Rights.”
Kuenyehia is undoubtedly a pioneer in legal studies and practice and this is not merely because of the novelty of her “first woman” role in many positions. She is a pioneer for also actively working to ensure that African (and female) perspectives and concerns are central to contemporary law. Even more important is her effort to bring the law home—to make it meaningful to people’s material experiences.