By: Maame Efua Addadzi-Koom (Research and Innovation Lead, IAWL)
The author presented the contents of this post at the Women’s Forum Panel discussion at the Pan African Lawyers' Union (PALU) 12th Annual Conference in Arusha, Tanzania, on 28 June 2022. The Institute for African Women in Law sponsored the panel.
Gender equality and the protection of women's rights are critical for inclusive development in Africa. Thus, having African women in all facets of society positions them to contribute to advancing the continent's national and regional development goals. The Africa we want cannot be a reality without equal input from women, particularly women in leadership. It is not enough for women to be in the room; they must have a seat at the decision-making table because leadership offers women the opportunity to manifest their roles as powerful agents of change.
As a woman in law with almost six years of experience in the legal academy, I do not doubt the essential role of legal education and training in realizing the African development agenda, and empowering young girls to become women lawyers who will be involved in the process. Law students spend more time at school than at home with their families, so they are more likely to be shaped by what they are taught and experience in school than at home. Teachers of the law and legal institutions, therefore, have a duty to ensure that students are offered holistic training and turn out to be lawyers who are development-oriented and gender-sensitive.
One of the crucial steps to take is to decolonize legal education. Legal education and the legal profession, generally, are conservative, slow to change, and in Africa, primarily reflect the legacy of colonialism. To decolonize legal education means to make it Afrocentric. We must move away from the notion that the best ideas, systems, theories, and examples are from the global north. We can draw lessons from best practices within Africa in the various law courses that are taught. Emerging trends on the continent and African perspectives on global trends need to be integrated into the relevant courses. At my institution, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), the introduction of African Union Law as an elective course at the undergraduate level is a step in the right direction in the decolonizing process.
Another is to train students to be gender-sensitive through the content of the courses they are taught and their general training. Legal education, training, and the legal profession are deeply steeped in patriarchy which sometimes makes it challenging for women to navigate easily. Gender issues should not be relegated to only specially-dedicated courses on women and gender because, when that structure is adopted, students who patronize such courses are often women. Mainstreaming gender requires roping in both men and women; hence, the current male allies movement taking hold globally. Therefore, law teachers should highlight the gender-related aspects of their courses. There are a lot of windows for that in every course if we look closely and capitalize on them as we deliver lectures. For example, in constitutional law, which I teach, lectures on constitutionally-guaranteed human rights are always an opportunity to discuss issues on gender with my students.
In my experience as a law lecturer, I have also realized a pattern in my faculty where, of the two class representatives (a man and a woman), the men class representatives are often the active ones engaging with the lecturers to coordinate the necessary logistics. The women representatives are usually in assisting positions and only become active when the men representatives is unavailable. This pattern reinforces the socially-defined roles for men and women in law students who should be breaking the biases and are taught to do so. It appears then that law students' experiences and representation, even at the faculty, conflict with what they are taught in the classroom. To remedy the trend, I try, in my small way, to have a shared communication with both class representatives, and sometimes even more with the women class representatives, to boost the representation of women in leadership in law to the students at an early stage.
The Africa we want starts from the classroom – where the minds of the young people of Africa and their aspirations for the future are shaped. The law classroom is particularly vital because law permeates every aspect of the Africa we want and is a powerful tool for realizing it. Training gender-sensitive lawyers will, therefore, ensure that African women lawyers can stand up for themselves and pursue leadership to contribute to transforming the continent into the Africa we want. It will also ensure that men lawyers are encouraged to support women lawyers and advocate for an Africa where there is gender equality.
As a final note to women lawyers on becoming influential leaders who will make a substantial impact – especially young women lawyers since I am one – I will say two things. First, I will echo the words of Isabel Boaten, a Managing Partner at a top law firm in Ghana: do not be afraid to shine. There is so much you have to offer the world; go for it, and let nothing stop you. Second, pursue mentorship. Mentorship is a two-way street that requires your pursuit and availability as a young lawyer. The mentors you seek are very busy people who may be willing to help but are hard-pressed for time. Your mission should be to pursue them until you get their attention and they make time for you. So, if you see someone you admire and wish to have as a mentor, get in touch with them; not once, but as many times as it will take to get noticed. Please don't wait to be mentored; pursue it.