More and more young female legal practitioners boldly occupying spaces

April 2nd, 2023
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The Institute for African Women in Law held a webinar under the theme ‘African Women in Law Rising, Embrace Equity’. Vice President of the Law Society of Kenya, Faith Mony Odhiambo, said embracing equity is a realisation that the industries that women are in, do not put them in the same place and in the same space as their male counterparts. She added that in reality it is that women do not get the same opportunities as men. She shared a story of an interview she went for where the panel was impressed with her curriculum vitae, her experience and what she could bring to the table. However, one of the questions put to her was about her marital status, the concern was that she was single and would get married, or soon go on maternity leave or even change her surname. She pointed out that that had left her shocked, as she had never thought her marital status had anything to do with her ability to do her work. She pointed out that such things put women at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.

Ms Odhiambo said for her, embracing equity, means celebrating women who have raised the bar. She pointed out that despite being mothers, wives, daughters and carrying the whole community these women have been able to achieve the things that they have achieved. She added that embracing equity also means not only recognising the challenges that are there but also celebrating the milestones.

Managing Partner of Certa Law, Florida Kabasinga, said there is a lot of division when it comes to equity between men and women. She pointed out that the reality is that it stems from people’s experience. She said that she was raised by two very strong women, and she does not remember her mother thinking that she was disadvantaged. She added that her mother worked extremely hard to achieve what she did. ‘Even when I did my studies … in human rights, I was not interested in gender discussions. Because I thought if you already think you are disadvantaged, then you are already halfway to failure,’ Ms Kabasinga said.

Ms Kabasinga, however, said when she got older in the workspace and grew her experience, she realised that perhaps her way of thinking was not the experience of everyone, and was not the thinking others had. She spoke about when she started her own law firm, she approached people to partner with her and they refused. She pointed out that she knew that they had refused because she was a woman. However, that did not stop her from creating one of the best law firms. She added that when it comes to equity, women are not going to be allowed in certain spaces. She said that women need to hold each other’s hands and go into spaces that people think women should not be in. She pointed out that it is not just men who think women do not deserve to be in certain spaces, but some women think so too.

Law lecturer at the University of Professional Studies, Accra, Yorm Ama Abledu, said the theme of embracing equity was apt. She said being the first Ghanaian woman to win the International Bar Association for Outstanding Young Lawyer Award in 2022, she is a beneficiary to the efforts of women, who came before her, to open doors for young women who come after them. She added that she is a product of their turn to champion equity. She pointed out that this year’s celebration is a call to everyone to strive for gender equity especially in the legal profession.

The moderator asked a follow-up question to Ms Kabasinga on when she realised that there was no equity in the world and that she had to do something about it. Ms Kabasinga pointed out that when she started practicing privately, she started doing a lot of work with the Rwanda Bar Association. She said she engaged with other female legal practitioners and percentage of female legal practitioners was not great in the Rwanda Bar Association.

Ms Kabasinga said that the Rwanda Bar Association had commissioned her to research statistics of female legal practitioners within the Bar Association. ‘That is when I realised that there is some type of disadvantage, which we, together with the Rwanda Bar Association are trying to address, but that is just in the legal practice. But when you do work for pro bono legal services in a space of assisting young women who have been victims of GBV, you actually see that there is a lot that has still needs to be done,’ Ms Kabasinga added.

The moderator put a question to the panel on the status of the future of female legal practitioner. Ms Odhiambo responded that there are more active young legal practitioners. She pointed out that even in her lecturing work, she has seen that there are more females who are choosing to study law. However, she said that the challenge has always been how many are going to enter the bar. She added that with the changing sphere things are getting better. She pointed out that the Law Society of Kenya is working to protect members, that they have passed the policy of anti-bullying and sexual harassment. She said they have been taking more cases of disciplining senior members for conduct of sexual harassment of young female legal practitioners.

Ms Odhiambo added that young female legal practitioners have now become bolder and are demanding space. ‘Recently a survey was done by young legal practitioners, led by a female legal practitioner. She set up a virtual questionnaire and she published all the findings, highlighting what are the issues in the different law firms, and identify particular cases. This was something that was taken up by ourselves as a follow-up,’ said Ms Odhiambo. She, furthermore, pointed out that most importantly this made male owned law firms change their internal policies to ensure that it is a friendly environment. She said that this made her realise great young legal practitioners are taking up space, particularly the young women.

Ms Odhiambo said that before COVID-19, development programmes would be done in different parts of the country, however, since COVID-19, since people are able to attend programmes or work from home, female legal practitioners who are moms are able to participate and more and more female law firms are being opened. She pointed out that even in academia more and more women are rising in Kenya.

Ms Odhiambo shared the strategies she put in place to empower women, through her law firm and foundation. She pointed out that the first one is providing a space for mentorship. She said that her law firm takes young females who are law graduates and gives them internships, provides advice on which area of law they should be looking into, depending on their passion and what the market is like. She added that in school, law students are told about the traditional legal practice arears, she said that her law firm teaches them about the market and gives them the tools and provides them with a senior legal practitioner to mentor interns. She pointed out that on Fridays they have two hours dedicated to someone coming in and talking to the young lawyers about different topics in law. ‘We also give them skills in networking, because we know sometimes women in law, we feel like we cannot do deals, like go to the golf clubs or bars, but there are other things that can provide an opportunity for networking,’ said Ms Odhiambo.

 

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

 

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