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Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School
Gender Justice and Ghana A Conversation with Chief Justice Georgina Wood

Her Ladyship Georgina Theodora Wood is the Chief Justice of the Republic of Ghana. Appointed in June 2007, Chief Justice Wood is the first woman to be elevated to this high office. Avon Global Center is honored to welcome Chief Justice Wood to its Steering Committee.

Chief Justice Wood recently shared with the Avon Global Center some insights and thoughts regarding gender justice, her own experiences, and advice to advocates:

Q: What has sparked your interest in and passion for gender justice issues?

A: Throughout my career as a female judge, I have been passionate about issues concerning women and children, who, for various reasons, are subject to much abuse, neglect and injustice in society.

My elevation to the position as the first female Chief Justice made me a symbol of women's empowerment and heightened the general expectation that I use the judicial system to right societal wrongs and injustices against women, who indeed are the backbone of the economy. I believe that in every country, the doors of justice must be left open to the poorest man or woman. As a judicial reformer, my focus is on improving access to justice. I believe the Ghanaian judiciary must do everything in its power to enhance public trust and confidence in the system, given that good governance and the rule of law is central to the country’s socioeconomic development.

Q: What motivated you to become involved with the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School?

A: My vision on gender justice ties in neatly with the Center’s broad aims, namely to advance efforts to improve access to justice, in a bid to curb gender–based violence worldwide. The Ghanaian judiciary has already been introduced to the benefits likely to be derived from our association with the Center. This includes the free legal assistance being offered to judges relating to national and international laws impacting on women and girls, particularly survivors of gender-based violence, the Center’s electronic library facilities, and the online discussion forum where judges and advocates can share information and discuss emerging issues on the subject. Since the Center's interest is not only limited to judges, but legal professionals, governmental and non-governmental organizations, I intend very quickly to introduce the Center’s resources to other stakeholders for our mutual benefit.

Q: In your opinion, what are the greatest obstacles for securing justice for women-survivors of gender-based violence?

A: Violence against women has been endemic in the Ghanaian society for a long time. Many factors explain the chronic difficulty in eliminating this canker.

Societal attitude towards the worst forms of gender-based violence, for example; rape is indifference at best and wicked at worse. Illiteracy and ignorance have combined to delude society in general; into loosing sight of the fact that gender-based sexual offenses is one of the worst forms of human rights abuse. Not surprisingly, we have people blaming victims for provoking the offense with their sexually suggestive ways of dressing.

Families, especially the extended families on both sides of the divide, namely, victim and perpetrator, from religious or other social groupings put a lot of pressure, both overt and covert, on victims of gender violence. Victims are either forced, not to report the offense, or not to pursue prosecution, if the matter had already been reported. The absence of witness protection mechanisms, the interminable delays associated with court room trials, disinterestedness and lack of empathy from law enforcement personnel, lack of access to resources, including legal and medical services, all contribute to this challenge faced by the vulnerable Ghanaian woman.

It is also trite that inadequate legal framework, discriminatory religious and customary laws and practices fail to guarantee the rights of girls and women and exposes them to grave harm and abuse. These cultural beliefs and practices conspire to make women so highly vulnerable that most often than not, they would rather stay in an abusive relationship than walk out of it. I believe that we need to aggressively put mechanisms in place that would help address those deep-rooted cultural practices that infringe on the human rights of women and girls in particular. Cultural practices, such as: the fear of being ridiculed for being single, or not bearing children; female genital mutilation; widowhood rites; sexual slavery; forced marriage; and forced prostitution, which are mainly as a result of poverty and lack of economic dependence, are some of the challenges women face.

Gender-based violence is most pronounced in conflict or post-conflict situations which are associated with general breakdown of law and order and heightened insecurity for women and children. Armed groups capitalize on the breakdown of law enforcement, justice institutions as well as family and social or community structures to inflict incalculable harm on their victims and perpetuate the culture of impunity.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important legal and/or social changes that would positively affect the life, liberty and safety of women in your country?

A: Gender–based and other pro-rights organizations have done a lot to improve the status of women in Ghana and we must salute them for their bravery and fortitude. Understandably, a lot more remains to be done. Ghana is hailed, nationally and internationally as a symbol of the rule of law in the sub-region. But truth be told, a number of social, economic and legal problems militate against the interest of women and children, who by and large are the most vulnerable in society. Free and proper (in the truest sense) medical care for women who fall victim to gender violence should be a priority issue in our country.

I would advocate a major change in societal attitudes and changes in the legal framework that would lead to a criminalization of all harmful cultural practices and all forms of domestic violence including the economic. Law enforcement officers must be empowered to appreciate the fact that the intangibles such as emotional, and psychological harm arising from physical abuse need to be carefully taken into account when applying sanctions. Abolition of harmful cultural practices should not be mere rhetoric, but more importantly implemented to achieve manifest results.

Raising the cost to men who perpetrate gender-based violence, through the establishment of criminal sanctions and mandated participation in treatment programs in the context of criminal prosecution of aggressors are all possible ways of ensuring justice for women.

Judicial reforms must be targeted at improving access to justice in all its forms and making courts user friendly. Specialized courts or dedicating days to adjudicate cases affecting women and children as expeditiously as possible are some of the proven methods for women rights protection. A strong, independent and proactive judiciary led, of course, by a dynamic and progressive senior judiciary paves the way for the entrenchment of human rights and other democratic values.

Legal services--and this includes legal aid, waiving court fees for the indigent woman who would want to approach the courts for justice, and other interventions that offer adequate protection for women--should be forthcoming to help deal with present and potential victims. This calls for improvement in relevant laws and services and increased knowledge of women’s rights.

Q: What advice would you give women advocates in the field of gender justice?

A: Education in a holistic sense should aim to empower women and strengthen their personal, legal, social and economic independence so they can, to some measure, confidently assert their basic or fundamental rights.

Poverty eradication should target women in particular as the main breadwinners of families in general. Girl-child education should be further prioritized, while affirmative action for women employment is given the necessary push.

Education on reproductive health and indeed other health-related issues should also be intensified to help women assert their rights in all aspects of their lives.

This imposes an enormous responsibility on women advocates for gender justice, pro-rights institutions, the media etc to sharpen their skills and advocacy tools to maximize their impact in the fight against gender based violence, particularly socioeconomic violence which includes discrimination and denial of opportunities or services on the basis of sex, gender, and economic violence which restricts women access to financial or other resources.

Institutional responses to gender-based violence should be strengthened to provide affected women with effective means of redress. For example, survivors need temporary shelters as a safety measure while they seek redress.