Female Judges From Around the Globe Convene in D.C.

At an inspiring meet-up of the world’s most prominent female jurists, Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined their African counterparts to discuss how legal solutions can help battle everything from female circumcision to patriarchal property laws. Eve Conant reports from a special panel presented by Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World series.

Left to right: Dr. Ebby Elahi, Andrea Mitchell, Chief Justice Georgina Theodora Wood of Ghana, Kakenya Ntaiya, Judge Ann Claire Williams

Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.

It sounds simple, but it’s a point that needs underscoring, and was a key message driven home by a panel of women judges and experts brought together Friday to culminate the Virtue Foundation Senior Roundtable on Women and the Judiciary in Washington, D.C.

The two-day event at the Supreme Court and the State Department was kicked off by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and convened judges from around the world to discuss ways to further women’s rights worldwide.

Friday’s final event, presented by Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World salon series, focused on Africa and finding ways to get more African women into positions of judicial power.

Why? Well, for several reasons.

Panel member Dr. Ebby Elahi, a surgeon and associate clinical professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, stressed the importance of educating girls. Once they reach positions of power, he said “it’s almost Darwinian in that they not only have the skill sets of men but additional ones” just by virtue of their struggle to succeed. Elahi has worked extensively in Mongolia, Burundi, Ghana, and other countries where he has also learned another very important lesson: “Women tend to be less corrupt.”

And, he points out, “You want to work in places where work gets done.”

Kakenya Ntaiya, however, knows what it takes for a woman to get ahead in Africa, and the price is often steep. She was engaged at the age of 5 and destined for ritual circumcision and early marriage in Kenya. She made a deal with her father: She would endure the surgery if he let her finish high school. Later she negotiated another deal with her village elders to leave her Maasai village and go to college in the U.S. Now 32, Ntaiya has opened the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a girl’s school in her village that has seen enrollment more than double since it opened in 2009 with 32 girls. Speaking Friday, she told moderator Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC, how her childhood helped her shape the lives of others.

“Genital mutilation, for example, is not a just a medical problem but a legal problem.”

Her father abused her mother, said Ntaiya “but my mother was very inspirational to me” and supported her in her dream to become a teacher. Her dream came at the price of circumcision, but now that she is familiar with Kenyan laws, she is in a position to help others who were not as fortunate as herself or her mother. One of her students recently told a teacher she didn’t want to be cut, but that her parents were preparing for the ritual. Understanding their legal recourse and their need as a school to follow the law (in Kenya ritual circumcision of girls is outlawed), Ntaiya’s school got the ministry of education and the village chief to intervene and stop the procedure.

Mitchell asked how the judiciary could better reach rural areas. Ntaiya pointed out that in Kenya, for example, laws and rules in fact “are already there” but like many others with fates similar to hers, “I didn’t have access to them. The laws are in Nairobi, not in the villages.” She recommended training local chiefs and elders in the legal advances that have been implemented in cities and how to enforce them in rural settings.

Chief Justise Georgina Theodora Wood of Ghana’s supreme court also weighed in on how to get laws put into action, arguing that legal authorities in Africa often put too much weight on what she called “black letter law” and not on the spirit of the law. In other words, she later explained to The Daily Beast, judges and citizens too often accept “that what is written in black and white is the law,” going by the book without actually looking to understand the meaning and intent of the law. For example, she points to a recent case in which extended family members of a man who had died argued that because his home was unfinished, it did not count as marital property. “But the intent of the law was to give a good beginning to a surviving wife,” says Wood. Had she only followed “black letter law,” the wife would have lost her home.

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The smallest changes can have large effects. The Honorable Judge Ann Claire Williams, the first judge of color appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, has traveled to Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and other African countries to train judges and lawyers. She told the group that it is women in those countries, more and more of whom are joining the judiciary, who are making gains large and small for legal progress. Williams gave an example of how judges in Liberia were working to be more efficient at hearing rape cases. A female judge in rural Liberia said she had to close her day at 4 p.m. in order to make it home safely, because there was no electricity in her courthouse. With full access to electricity, “In the U.S. I can take my files home if I need to,” says Williams. But the Liberian judge chose to solve things differently. “She said, ‘I want to hold court starting at 8 a.m. to get more testimony in.’”

Dr. Elahi argued that the lack of access to the law also hinders medical efforts in rural areas. “One of the main challenges we face in health care is that we can do great things with surgery but what’s the point if a person has no recourse to the law? Genital mutilation, for example, is not a just a medical problem but a legal problem.” Failure to holistically approach Africa’s problems, he warns, will lead to “patchwork” solutions.

Ghana’s Chief Justice Wood agreed, laying out her personal vision for a “one-stop shop for women” in Ghana in which they could obtain everything from legal help to microfinancing and reproductive-health advice. Ghana may be the right place for such a pilot project. Dr. Elahi, who is also director of the Center for Innovation and Philanthropy in Ghana, says he has worked in other countries “that were not at the stage where they could really take off. Ghana is politically stable and ready for this kind of work.”

That work, according to those gathered who know and love Africa, consists of finding ways to get the laws of the cities into villages and encouraging judges, as Williams puts it, “to go beyond the robe” in deciding cases and reaching out to communities. And last but not least, of course, to get more women in those robes.

Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.