Women have made trailblazing contributions to the history of Ghana. Whether it is in the works of Yaa Asantewaa, the unrelenting militant Queen Mother of the Ashanti Kingdom, or the entrepreneurial legacy of Dr. Esther Ocloo (neé Nkulenu) an industrialist and philanthropist, the list continues to grow. Regrettably, within the political realm, women have struggled to achieve meaningful representation in the legislative and executive branches of government.
According to the current data on global rankings, Ghana ranks 147 out of 189 countries with women making up only 13% of the seats in parliament.  Despite the fledging numbers of women in parliament and the executive branches, the judiciary––as the third branch of government, has recorded comparatively modest gains for women’s representation, with women currently making up over 33% of the judiciary.
The story of women in Ghana’s judiciary traces back to 1953 when Justice Annie Jiagge (neé Baeta) became the first woman in Ghana and the British Commonwealth to be appointed a magistrate. Justice Annie Jiagge continued her judicial trajectory until she became the first woman to sit on the bench of the highest court of the land at the time—the Court of Appeal in 1969, later becoming president of the court from 1980 to 1983.
In 1991, Justice Joyce Bamford-Addo made history as the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Ghana. The fact that Ghana appointed a woman to the Court of Appeal (then the highest court of the land) in 1969, and then to the Supreme Court in 1991 are “firsts” that surpass the former British colonizers from whom Ghana’s legal system was modelled. In the United Kingdom, it was not until 2009, when Lady Brenda Hale was appointed the first woman to the highest court of the land—the Supreme Court.
Ghana’s appointment of Justice Annie Jiagge’s to the highest court of the land in 1969 equally surpasses the United States of America, where, despite over a century of women’s participation in the judiciary, it was not until 1981 when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made history as the first woman appointed to the highest court (the Supreme Court of the United States of America). Following in the footsteps of Justice Annie Jiagge, women judges have risen through the ranks to the upper echelons of the judiciary in Ghana. I refer to them as the Big Six Women of Justice—Joyce Bamford-Addo, Rose Constance Owusu, Georgina Wood, Vida Akoto-Bamfo, Sophia Adinyira, and Sophia Akuffo. These women judges make up the second and third generation of women to sit on the Supreme Court of Ghana. Even more remarkable is that out of the Big Six, two have served as Chief Justices—Georgina Theodora Wood and Sophia Akuffo (current chief justice).
The pathbreaking stories of women in the Ghanaian judiciary has grown from the domestic courts, to include international courts. In 2003, Judge Akua Kuenyehia was among the first group of judges elected by member states and appointed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague, Netherlands. At the ICC, Akua Kuenyehia served for a total of 12 years, rising to the level of First Vice President of the Court. In 2006, Justice Sophia Akuffo was among the first group of judges elected by African member states and appointed to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) based in Arusha, Tanzania. Sophia Akuffo served two terms, totaling six years, within which period she served two terms first as Vice President of the Court (2008 and 2010) and later as President (2012).
The retirement of Justice Sophia Adinyira from the Supreme Court of Ghana in August 2019 will bring the number of women on the highest court of the land to two, out of a total of 13 (15%) justices as currently constituted. Justice Sophia Adinyira’s retirement follows closely in the heels of recent retirements of women justices from the Supreme Court. Justice Vida Akoto-Bamfo’s retirement in February 2019, preceded by Chief Justice Georgina Wood in 2017 and Justice Rose Owusu in 2014. Though the 2018 appointment of four new judges to the Supreme Court included one woman, the recent retirement of Justice Adinyira and the impending retirement of Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo promises to deal a blow to the legacy of women on the Supreme Court of Ghana.
What can be done to halt the possible tsunami that threatens the gender balance on the Supreme Court of Ghana? I provide a number of suggestions.
First, let us apply the principle of Sankofa—a return to the past. It is important to take a page from the historical record of women’s contributions to Ghana’s national development. Women have always been an integral part of Ghana’s history, playing important political, social, cultural, spiritual and economic roles. Women fought side by side men in resisting colonial oppression; women were elected into the first parliament of Ghana; women contributed to national development and international affairs through engagement with international organizations. Women in Ghana have consistently displayed their dynamism through trailblazing “first” positions in professions often reserved for men. Ghana does not need to be told how to empower women—women have established a track record of dynamism across time and space.
Second, when we search, we will find. Women have proven themselves capable of rising from the lower courts to the highest court of the land. Merit-based appointments often tend to be couched in a language that reinforces gender inequity. Most gatekeepers, in advocating for women’s judicial appointments often preface a discussion of women candidates with the word “well qualified.” What this does is to emphasize the fact that a woman cannot just be a candidate, but she must be “well qualified”—and research has shown that the metrics for measuring such qualifications often do not favor women. How often do we hear the phrase “well qualified male candidate”? Currently, women make up 40% of the Court of Appeal, thus providing a big pool of qualified women candidates to draw from. Additionally, with past appointments allowing for judicial candidates to be drawn from active legal practice (as was the case with the Supreme Court appointment of the current Chief Justice Justice Sophia Akuffo), the Bar is a fertile ground to draw other competitive women candidates; and the same can be said of women in academia who have distinguished themselves.
Third, we must practice what we preach. for Ghana’s developmental trajectory to continue, we must not only pay lip-service to gender equality and empowerment espoused by the plethora of national and international instruments. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol, 2005) is a blueprint for promoting and enshrining gender equality and the rights of women in decision-making, as espoused by Articles 8 and 9 respectively. As a global roadmap to development, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides in Goal #5 gender equality; Goal #10 reducing inequalities and Goal #16, peace, justice and strong institutions. By balancing the sex ratio on the bench, Ghana will be signaling her commitment to achieving symbolic equality in terms of equitable representation of women’s voices in decision-making. Most importantly, having a representative bench contributes to promoting access to justice for women and gender issues. By appointing more women to the Supreme Court, Ghana’s judiciary will be signaling women’s roles as arbiters of peace, promoters of justice and contributors to building strong institutions, thereby meeting Goal #16.
Fourth, charity begins at home. President Akufo-Addo is currently the African Union Leader on Gender and Development Issues in Africa. Despite leading this continental agenda, the gender report card of the President at home has not been pleasing to women’s rights advocates. These include the low number of women appointed as ministers of state, and recent remarks on the lack of dynamism by women in politics at the 2019 Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver, Canada which caused an uproar among women and feminist activists in Ghana. In these two examples, the lines are drawn between those who support the President’s actions and words and those who were offended by same. With these two examples, the fact that one happened at home and the other abroad gives cause for concern. Will one woman on the Supreme Court be taken as enough? Or will the dynamism of women in the judiciary be doubted and therefore serve as a deterrent to nominating more women to the highest court of the land? Mr. President, you have been given a golden opportunity to prove that indeed you believe in the women of your homeland Ghana.
Why do more women on the Supreme Court of Ghana matter?
The answer is simple—they have a constitutional right to be there! Article 27 (3) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana says it all— “women shall be guaranteed equal rights to training and promotion without any impediments from any person.”
Women on the Supreme Court matter because the democratic institutions such as the judiciary are legitimized by the degree of openness and accessibility for all qualified candidates to contest for seats and positions. The primary function of the judiciary is to promote justice, fairness and equity—why not apply the same principles in selecting the judges who sit on the bench?
Women on the Supreme Court of Ghana matter because women contribute to all spheres of Ghana’s development. From the marketplace to the boardroom, from the classroom to the courtroom, women make meaningful contributions to national development. Women must therefore be represented in decision-making organs of state such as the judiciary. Women’s symbolic representation is the first step to achieving substantive representation of the rights of women and humanity.
Women on the Supreme Court of Ghana matter because African women’s rights are built on the idea of gender solidarity—the spirit of Ubuntu requires that we work together in consensus and solidarity to achieve the goals of the group (humanity). Women are capable of dispensing justice just as well as men—but this is not a competition, this is about representing the voices of all able citizens in building the country. Together, women and men can work to promote national development.
President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, you have been given this opportunity to make history. A history that will be recorded not because you chose to please anyone, but because it was simply the right thing to do. In the spirit of Yaa Asantewaa and the many unsung (s)heroes of Ghana, women’s rights advocates are watching with keen interest to see if you will deliver on your mandate as the African Union Leader on Gender and Development Issues in Africa. The eyes of young women and girls are keenly watching to see if they can trust their futures in the hands of the “father” of the land to guide them to achieving their dreams of being the empowered women of tomorrow.
To all the gatekeepers involved in the selection and appointment of judges to the Supreme Court of Ghana—the Council of State, Members of Parliament, the Bar Association, concerned Ghanaians are watching. Let the track record of women in Ghana’s judiciary guide you and let the voices of women be heard. If you search, you will find the right women candidates. If you call on them, they will answer. If you appoint, they will deliver. Women on the Supreme Court of Ghana matter because when sleeping women wake, mountains move (African proverb).
Source: J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.
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