By. J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.
In 1887, John Mensah Sarbah entered the historical record as the first Ghanaian lawyer when he was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in London. It would take another 58 years before the first Ghanaian woman— Essi Matilda Forster (neé Christian), would be called to the Bar at Grays Inn in London, in 1945 and later to the Gold Coast Bar in 1947. Globally, the legal profession was emerged as a male-dominated profession, and women had to fight to be included— first, for the right to study law, then for the right to practice the profession. Despite the global feminization of the legal profession, women still struggle in the legal profession to be accorded the equality they deserve in the practice of law, and in leadership positions.
The establishment of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghana in 1958, and the Ghana School of Law in 1959 by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, opened the way for many Ghanaians to study law on Ghanaian soil. Unlike women’s experiences in the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe in the early days of the profession, women in Ghana were not denied access to a legal education. Nonetheless, the colonial policies of limited basic education for the “natives”, and particularly for girls, and pervading socio-cultural practices, meant that the intake of women pursuing a law degree took time to grow. Since Essi Matilda Forsters’ historic achievement as the first woman lawyer in Ghana, Ghana has witnessed a gradual feminization of legal education, and consequently the legal profession, as more women acquire a law degree—with most of them graduating top of their class.
This brief historical journey leads us to the pathways women have taken after law school. A survey of the legal profession in Ghana shows that women can be found in all areas of legal practice—as in-house counsel, corporate executives, government agencies, law professors, judges, magistrates, associates, partners in law firms, and managing partners. Currently, women account for more than 30% of the members of the Ghana Bar Association. A recent study by the American Bar Association indicates that despite the increase in the number of women lawyers, women continue to face gender-based challenges leading to their slower upward mobility, and the high rates of attrition from the practice of law.
A report by the Institute for African Women in Law, Unveiling Subalternity? Women and the Legal Profession across Africa, highlighted some of the challenges women across the continent face, and these include handling the work-life balance due to the gendered division of labor in most homes, sexual harassment, workplace gender-based discrimination such as unequal pay, uneven promotion, and lack of access to networks. The challenges women face in Ghana mirror other global trends as documented by the International Bar Association’s Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession.
Notwithstanding these challenges, women in Ghana have risen to top leadership positions. The symbolic representation of women in these positions indicates the existence of favorable opportunity structures for women’s leadership in law. Despite the constant wrestling with the ghosts of patriarchy upon which the legal profession was built, women in Ghana have forged a way forward in excelling at the profession both at home and abroad. Women lawyers in Ghana have demonstrated their leadership capabilities including holding the top judicial position as Chief Justice, and the table below provides a few of these gains: