Skip to main content

The African Human Rights System

Blog Index
Recent Posts
The African Human Rights System
May 2024
The African Human Rights System
By Adelaide Howell
Posted: 2024-05-10T19:56:49Z

In December 2023, the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) partnered with GQUAL to host the third webinar in a series dedicated to exploring female representation and inclusion in decision-making roles. Moderated by Maria Leoni of GQUAL, the webinar convened four distinguished speakers to delve into the status of female representation within African courts and strategies for enhancing accessibility to these institutions.


Initially uncertain of her qualifications for the ICC, Justice Solomy Bossa became a beacon of inspiration for aspiring female jurists. Her tenure at the African Court of Human and People’s Rights exemplifies transformative leadership, where she advocated for gender parity within the court. Through engagement with the African Union (AU), Justice Bossa catalyzed efforts to ensure equitable representation, yielding commendable progress in gender balance within the AU's human rights court. The AU is the youngest human rights court but achieved gender equality much sooner than the other older courts.


Women’s representation at all levels is crucial, but especially on the international level. It is important for women to be encouraged towards these positions and to see examples of women succeeding at high levels. However, there haven’t been many deliberate moves by other courts to encourage women to represent at the international level. Enter the ICC, which is setting the example for what needs to be done. The ICC has now implemented regulations regarding female representation. This means that there need to be at least five women on the court, with two candidates for each post.


Justice Bossa concluded her presentation by providing some suggestions on how we can ensure that female representation continues to be a priority. In Africa, we need to empower women to believe in themselves. Women often lack confidence in their qualifications, or they are not trusted, especially when addressing issues surrounding sexual harassment. Women also bring perspectives that men don’t have, especially regarding gender-based crimes, and their presence on the panel helps victims feel supported. Additionally, women need mentoring to realize that they can compete and that they are entitled to compete against men, as competence should be based on performance, not gender. Lastly, the law applies equally to all of us, so women should be involved at all levels because it is also a human right for women to be equally represented.


Our next speaker was Dr. Jarpa Dawuni, an associate professor at Howard University in political science. Throughout her career, she has accumulated extensive experience studying female participation and representation. One of the key points she made was that “women judges who stand their ground can reach high positions.” This reinforces Justice Bossa's discussion about supporting women and helping them believe that they are just as capable as their male counterparts. Dr. Dawuni then briefly touched on positionality and how identities (such as being female, African, American, etc.) affect one's work and approach to work.


We often compare Africa to non-colonized nations, which is an unfair comparison. This is not to say that there are no longer issues with governments accepting and supporting women. Women across Africa still have a long way to go regarding representation, but significant progress has been made, especially compared to European courts. Dr Dawuni concluded by arguing that contrary to some beliefs, African women's success is not solely due to foreign aid; such a narrative undermines women's achievements. Finally, we must recognize the African roots of female leadership and how this has translated into human rights frameworks.


Dr. Frans Viljeon, a Professor of Law and UN Human Rights Council advisory committee member, emphasized the universal relevance of female representation as a fundamental human rights issue. He further stated that female representation is important because it increases legitimacy and efficiency; when people see themselves represented, they are more likely to believe in the system and feel empowered to access it. Highlighting Africa's progressive legislative frameworks mandating gender parity, Viljeon praised the continent's efforts in promoting women's participation at all levels of governance. One reason he pointed out that sets Africa apart is the explicit legislation within African courts, creating space for women to serve; it is not merely a suggestion but a law. Examples include the Maputo Protocol, which stipulates that states must increase female representation and participation in decision-making bodies. However, there are challenges at the domestic level, usually surrounding nominations, and the UN lacks specificity, leading to a lack of representation. He stressed the importance of implementing robust mechanisms for accountability and urged sustained efforts to overcome domestic challenges hindering women's representation.


Our final speaker was Andrea Pietrafesa, a member of GQUAL and a human rights lawyer from Argentina. Like Dr. Dawuni, she examines the law through a decolonial lens. Her presentation focused on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Unlike Africa, the Organization of American States (OAS) lacks explicit regulations regarding female representation, resulting in women constituting only 20% of the total representation in the Inter-American Court. She advocated for increased engagement between the OAS and member states to address gender disparities within regional human rights bodies. Pietrafesa highlighted Argentina's exemplary practices in promoting transparency and accountability in judicial appointments.


In conclusion, the webinar shed light on the multifaceted dimensions of advancing female representation within African human rights systems. By fostering mentorship, challenging gender biases, and leveraging legislative frameworks, stakeholders can collectively propel the agenda of gender equity in judicial institutions. Embracing diverse perspectives and indigenous models of leadership is essential for nurturing inclusive and accessible legal systems that uphold the principles of human rights for all.