Justice Florence Mumba Reflects on Women’s Rights and Gender Justice

Court Judge Florence Mumba

Hon. Justice Florence Ndepele Mwachande Mumba is one of the most influential jurists and recognizable names in the field of gender justice. Justice Mumba currently serves on the High Court of Zambia and is the Chairperson of Zambia’s Electoral Commission. Justice Mumba’s international judicial experience includes serving on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and, currently, the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts of Cambodia. Significantly, Justice Mumba is credited for helping to advance gender jurisprudence at the international level, drawing greater understanding and recognition of gender-based violence during conflict.

Justice Mumba recently shared with the Avon Global Center some insights regarding women’s rights, women’s political participation, and challenges in securing gender justice.

Q: What prompted your interest in and concern for women’s rights, and how has this interest been furthered by your study of the law?

A: In my desire to study law, I noticed that women are tied down to traditional roles where male members of the family are considered superior, entitled to respect and, in most cases, never wrong. In marriage, whether statutory or customary, a husband has powers of censure in many cases, including ‘authority’ to assault the wife. I decided to study law because I felt that our traditional norms were not fair, and in particular, that even the Christian faith models of marriage were sidelined because of tradition. In my studies I discovered that actually women are stronger, emotionally, than men, even though they may be weaker, physically. I also discovered that there is equality in the creation of the human race in the Biblical sense because female and male roles complement each other. I therefore felt that women’s rights, which are human rights, ought to be understood and enforced as such.

Q: You are also the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. What are some of the challenges you have seen in terms of incorporating women into the political process? What do you consider to be the most important steps that can be taken to ensure women voter participation and women’s greater participation in governance?

A: As Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia I have observed that political parties, in general, do not actually admit women in their system of administration or in their choices of candidates for presidential office, parliamentary office, or local government (civic) office. There is no merit in this practice when in fact we do have a lot of educated women who have retired from normal careers and are available for political office. In almost all countries, women who are bread winners have been known to sufficiently support their families, including their less able husbands, as women are less selfish than men. In politics, men see women as threats; they feel intimidated even though in the case of traditional communities we do have female monarchs, that is, chiefs. Gender prejudice only arises with political office for reasons which are not meritorious. A step which ought to be taken to ensure women’s greater participation as contestants and women’s greater participation in governance is for civil society to work out programmes targeted at civic education for both women and men so that there is accommodation for women in politics, and later in governance, generally. Civil society should be strengthened in this regard as there is no other free institution, in my view, which can be effective in promoting the participation of women in national politics. It has been observed, and it is actually a fact that, at election time, there are more women voters than men — and yet women are denied candidature status unfairly.

Q: In addition to serving on the High Court of Zambia, you have also served as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and now the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts of Cambodia. In your opinion, what are the most significant advances made in international jurisprudence in terms of securing justice for women-survivors of gender-based violence during conflict? What do you consider the most significant obstacle going forward?

A: The most significant advance in international jurisprudence, in terms of securing justice for women survivors of gender-based violence, is the interpretation and recognition of gender-based crimes such as rape, indecent assault, and sex assault, as international crimes, i.e. crimes against humanity or war crimes, depending on circumstances on the ground. This recognition has greatly improved the security of women throughout most conflict periods; it has also put male soldiers and their superiors on alert in order to avoid undue attacks on women who are left defenseless in situations of armed conflict. The additional aspect of individual criminal responsibility for perpetrators as well as their superiors has greatly enhanced the observation of Conventions on war regarding what may amount to justice or injustice, in the pursuit to conquer “enemies”.

In this regard, what I consider to be the most significant obstacle is the requirement of public trials in such cases. Publicity of trials discourages women, and in some cases male victims, of gender based violence in times of conflict from coming forward. The victims are afraid of stigmatization within the family and community. It also touches on human decency to describe how one was indecently assaulted on the parts of the body which are considered private because the press publicizes such cases which are read by family members, including the children of the victims. There is nothing wrong in adopting procedures where such trials are held in camera, identities of victims are protected, and any identifying facts in the evidence are kept out of the public domain. The rights of the accused to a public trial cannot be jeopardized by such procedural rules because an accused person can still have access to the identity of the witness or victims, and of the evidence required for the case in order to prepare a defense. Such procedures have been adopted by the International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. ‘Public’ humiliation should not be part of the quest for justice for survivors of gender based violence.

Q: Having served on various international tribunals as well as the High Court of Zambia, what are some of the “lessons learned” that you can share with other judges about your own process of ‘adjusting’ as a judge to these different legal systems?

A: International legal practice is available to all who wish to learn the various interpretations of legal concepts and doctrines, as they can study at different times in different institutions. It has been best for me to learn that the cause of justice has moulded social values regarding doctrines and different interpretations of law, which all lead to justice as understood by different communities in the world. I have come to learn that justice does accommodate a diversity of social values for different peoples on earth.

Q: Does the Zambian judiciary have any initiatives or programs that specifically address gender justice and improving women’s access to justice?

A: Yes, the Zambian judiciary has accommodated programmes meant to address gender disparity and improve women’s access to justice through the Zambian Chapter of Women Judges Association, which is undertaking training programmes in association with the International Association of Women Judges as well as other international organizations. Both men and women judges, magistrates and other judicial officers attend training sessions to sensitize them on handling female victims and vulnerable litigants in various types of cases to encourage them as benchers to be sensitive while adjudicating fairly.

Q: Is there a particular professional achievement you would point to as a turning point in your career?

A: Yes, because of my experiences at the national and international level I have clear gender neutral ethics in law. This enables me to handle democracy issues, which turn on electoral processes, as a basis for gender neutral political aspirations, both at national and international levels.

Q: What advice would you give advocates working or hoping to work in the field of gender justice?

A: Advocates working or hoping to work in the field of gender justice should discard stereo-typing roles for women and men because the planet is for us all to achieve equality and quality in life.