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Women Judges in South Africa: Breaking Barriers & Biases

Group photo in front of a building
Group photo of conference participants with the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa in front of the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela building at UNISA.

The South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges (SAC-IAWJ) just concluded its 16th annual conference and annual general meeting at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria, South Africa, held from August 5-7, 2022, under the theme "Empowerment as a tool to fight gender-based violence: Breaking barriers and biases." Presentations covered a plethora of topics but focused on the societal, structural, and institutional challenges that converge to perpetuate gender-based violence (GBV) against women, sexual minorities, and persons living with disabilities. Presentations were made on the role of different actors such as the government, and civil society, the role of research and data, and the role of justice institutions such as the police and the judiciary in addressing the scourge of GBV.

The conference began with a gala night on Friday, August 5, 2022, attended by the President of the Republic of South Africa, H.E Mr. Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, Chief Justice Raymond M.M. Zondo, Deputy Chief Justice-elect Mandisa Maya, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa, Professor Puleng LenkaBula among other dignitaries.

Group photo at an event
From left to right: South Africa's Minister of Justice and Correctional Service, Mr. Ronald Lamola; Chief Justice Raymond M.M. Zondo; Prof. Puleng LenkaBula; President of the Republic of South Africa, H.E Mr. Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa; Deputy Chief Justice-elect Mandisa Maya; and South Africa's Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite Emily Nkoana-Mashabane.

The conference officially opened on Saturday, August 6, 2022 with a keynote address by the Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa, Mr. Raymond M.M. Zondo. Mr. Zondo reminded participants of the important role women play in South Africa and why the law, justice institutions, and all citizens have a duty to ensure that women enjoy their equal and inalienable constitutional rights as citizens.

Chief Justice Zondo underscored the importance of women judges:

Chief Justice R.M.M Zondo delivering a speech
Chief Justice Raymond M.M. Zondo

"There are many women among us today who are brave, and standing up against corruption, state capture, and ensuring the rule of law. We need to celebrate the courage that women have, the bravery they have in standing up against those who want to trample on the rule of law. The courts will be ready and the women who sit in these courts are fearless; they will protect the rule of law, they will protect the rights of women, they will protect the vulnerable groups. All of us, as a people, must play our role in bringing GBV to an end."

The Deputy Chief Justice-elect of the Republic of South Africa, Justice Mandisa Maya, bestowed on Chief Justice Zondo the SAC-IAWJ Male Allies Award for his tireless support and commitment to the SAC-IAWJ and the rights of women. Justice Maya recounted the financial donation from Justice Zondo's personal account to support the registration of the SAC-IAWJ chapter and how he always attended their meetings.

Justice Maya stressed the importance of finding solutions to the prevalent GBV cases, noting:

Deputy Chief Justice M.M Maya delivering a speech
Deputy Chief Justice-elect Mandisa Maya

"GBV cases continue to rise at an alarming rate despite the different solutions that have been offered in addressing it. If the problem is not something we are fixing, that means that we need to find new strategies. If we cannot eliminate it, we should at least do more to ameliorate the situation."

Supreme Court of Appeal Justice Mahube Molemela discussed the lingering barriers and biases within the judiciary and the challenges women judges have to navigate both on and off the bench. Justice Molemela also discussed challenges posed by institutional patriarchy. She called for women to support women, and for men allies to stand up and speak up against patriarchal norms and practices.

Prof. J. Jarpa Dawuni, Executive Director of IAWL presented on the theme, "African Women Judges in Leadership: The past, present, and future." Tracing the past challenges, current contestations, and contributions of women judges, she ended with a call to action for more women judges in judicial leadership. Presenting statistics and data on women in judicial leadership, Prof. Dawuni pointed out:

Prof. Jarpa Dawuni giving remarks
Prof. Jarpa Dawuni giving remarks on women in judicial leadership

"Africa leads the world in the number of women chief justices and presidents of constitutional courts. But there is still work to be done. The appointment of the first woman Deputy Chief Justice in South Africa is a good start, but we want to see the first woman Chief Justice of South Africa, and more women judge presidents in South Africa. South African women have been fearless leaders in the past, they are leading now, and they will lead into the future."

The conference was a mix of joy and positive energy as women judges broke out in song:


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