'Sisters In Law': Justice for Women in Africa A modest new documentary from the West African nation of Cameroon has been getting rave reviews at some of the world's most prestigious film festivals. Sisters In Law follows the saga of two female attorneys taking on entrenched attitudes to find justice for women.
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'Sisters In Law': Justice for Women in Africa

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'Sisters In Law': Justice for Women in Africa

'Sisters In Law': Justice for Women in Africa

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A documentary from the West African Nation of Cameroon has been turning heads at some of the world's most prestigious film festivals. Sisters In Law follows lawyer Vera Ngassa and Judge Beatrice Ntuba as they prosecute crimes against women and girls that have long been ignored by Cameroon's patriarchal society. In one scene, Ngassa cross-examines a husband who defends beating his wife because he says she committed adultery.

Ms. VERA NGASSA (State Prosecutor, Cameroon): So, you didn't catch them in bed, you have no pictures, you have no letters...

Unidentified Man: That's what I am saying, that I don't find any familiarity...

Ms. NGASSA: So what was it that would lead a reasonable man to think that they were sleeping together? What do you see?

Unidentified Man: My Lord, a woman cannot leave the house without the acceptance of the husband, or the husband knowing where she's going to.

Ms. NGASSA: You have now saying that you are not really sure that your wife committed any adultery?

Unidentified Man: I am not.

GORDON: Later in the film, Ngassa, who also teaches at the local university, brings two clients, both battered wives, to meet her class of young women.

Ms. NGASSA: For 17 years, we have not had a conviction for spousal abuse. But suddenly, this year, class, because of these two ladies that you see here, and two Muslim women at that. Who would have thought it, that the first time we would get a conviction for spousal abuse, it would come from Muslim women? Can you put your hands together?

GORDON: Sisters in Law premieres at New York's film forum next month. I sat down with Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba to talk about their efforts in Cameroon. Ngassa credits her success to two loving parents, and a good education.

Ms. NGASSA: I was raised in a town call Boya(ph), and I happened to go to nursery school. And in nursery school, we had opportunity to do a lot of plays and public speaking. From about the age of four years, I was used to speaking in public. But I think my passion for the law came from the desire to protect the underdog. I hate any form of injustice and discrimination. And, of course, I heard of stories of exploits of lawyers in court, which I know today are not true. And so, I wanted to be like that, because I heard the lawyers would talk so intelligently and brilliantly, and the court would listen to them.

So, I thought I wanted to be like that. So, from about the age of nine years, I knew I was going to be a lawyer. That desire was confirmed when I was about 15 years old, and I read a book call To Kill a Mockingbird. And I fell in love with Atticus Finch, the public attorney who defended a black man so brilliantly and valiantly in the 1930s. That made up my mind, I wanted to be like Atticus Finch.

GORDON: Ms. Ntuba, let me turn our attention to you, and ask much of what we see in this documentary is the abuse of women, and people being brought to justice. I'm curious, do you get a self-satisfaction in knowing that you are a part of bringing people to justice who do that wrong?

Ms. BEATRICE NTUBA (Judge, Cameroon): When you go back home after a day's job, and you realize you've given justice to somebody, you've lifted up somebody who was down in spirits, who was asking for help, then you feel really, really good. There are times when just that margin of error, and you get scared. Maybe you punished an innocent person. But for on the whole, you get a real deep sense of satisfaction, because when you give justice, what happens is that you can see it reflected in the faces, in the eyes of the victim. You can see the relief actually coming through.

GORDON: How difficult is it for you to knead out justice and the law when, as we see in this film, so many young women, who I'm sure you mirror and see yourself in at a particular age, are obviously being abused, raped and beaten by husbands for with holding sex? How difficult is it for you, as a woman, to divorce yourself from the idea that you've got follow the law?

Ms. NTUBA: As a woman, it is obvious that one would empathize with other women. But then the issue about a judge is that you rely, basically, on the law and on your conscience. It is not because you have a woman before you seeking for justice. It is not because the crime is heinous, so to speak, that you let your emotions as a woman carry the day. What we do, finally, is get a balance between justice and looking at gender, and where the women are coming from.

The truth of the matter is that, even though in this particular case, it was relatively easy, as I can say, because we had a situation where every defendant sort of admitted to their guilt. But it is not so every day, because you get situations where you actually have to separate the weed from the wheat, and there's no clear cut way of doing it. And you have to relay, basically, on intertwining the law with your conscience, and seeing the facts as they are played out in court.

But, as I say for the cases which were followed up in Sisters In Law, it wasn't very complicated. It wasn't a difficult task. Because of the society in which we live in, the men took it for granted that some of the things are their rights. Like, if you follow up the husband to the first lady Amina, he did not deny that he did not beat up his wife. He thought that was part of his rights. He said he beat her up because he was angry, but then he bought her drugs. You know, and he thought that was enough.

GORDON: Vera Ngassa, let me ask you, when we hear of a man beating his wife because she left the house without his permission, and therefore he decided she must have cheating, when we see a young girl being raped--are these simple cases to you, or do you see yourself as a woman on a mission?

Ms. NGASSA: I'm a woman on a mission, because we have been on women's issues since 1993, and we have come a long way. We started timidly, with teaching the people their rights, letting women know they had certain rights--you know, going through the ladder, teaching people who had to do with women's rights. We even had to talk with our male colleagues and the traditional chiefs.

So, seeing those cases come to court today, it's like I'm actually beginning to accomplish my mission now, because it's been an uphill task since 1993, trying to make a statement as to women's rights and, you know, status of women in Cameroon.

GORDON: Judge, let me ask you, you are not ordinary in terms of the women of Cameroon. You've been very out front. You lived, to a great degree, in a man's world, professionally. When you talk to women about their rights, their abilities, what they should expect, do you find that, particularly the older ones, do you find that they embrace this, or are they a bit of afraid of bucking the norm and trying to find independence?

Ms. NTUBA: The older generation of women, as we see, educating them is not easy. There are lot of them who are reticent--they don't want to accept change. They are very comfortable in the cultures, and our cultures and traditions, which put women in the second place to man. And they don't really want to change the status quo. They don't want change. For them, it is okay like that. It should remain like that.

But there are the other women to whom any human being, given an amount of freedom, will want to embrace it, and so they are the bulk of the women who are suffering, just because of ignorance. And we find out that when we educate them, they embrace it. They soak it up, and it's literally like a sponge. And now, you see, you find an awareness really shining on their faces. And they say, so this is what we've been suffering in silence.

But on the other hand, we have the diehard tradionalist women who do not want to change, and to whom we are preaching this strange doctrine, and to whom we are factors of the stabilization of the society, and they really don't want to play ball. They are not interested. They want to stay the way they are. But fortunately, the younger generation of the women and even the older ones, are seeing reason in knowing their rights, and in acceding to these rights and making use of these rights as is given to them by the laws of Cameroon, which I dare say, are quite gender friendly.

What the women are actually suffering from day to day is from ignorance and lack of knowledge that those laws are available to them.

GORDON: Vera Ngassa, as a state prosecutor, to a great degree, you're seen as an advocate. At the end of the film, you speak to a class of young women. I suspect that this is part of your calling, too. We talked about the reluctance of an older generation. Do you find that the new generation of women are reluctant? Or are they looking to you and others to say to them it can be better, we can be equal, and you should stand up for yourself?

Ms. NGASSA: Yes, that's precisely it. You have hit the nail on the head, as we say in Cameroon. You know, when we went around teaching women, we noticed that the older generation of women had made mistakes they refused to correct, or they really could not correct. I'll give you an example. You have an older woman who is married in courts, traditionally. She has no marriage certificate, and has nothing to prove that she's married, but she's actually married.

Now, what happens is that upon divorce, she gets nothing because there's nothing the law can recognize. And upon the death of her husband, she is going to lose everything, because she's a customary law wife, and under customary law, the woman is said to be property, and she cannot inherit anything. And that is why I decided that added to the legal literacy classes that we just used to do voluntarily in the villages and in the suburbs, it will be good to teach, you know, law students and sociology students and gender study students, because that's what my class is composed of, it's good to impart what I have onto a younger generation, and let them run with the fire.

And so, that is why I accepted to teach in the university. And so far, I have taught five classes, and I am really satisfied, because you have these people who have--they've let go of, you know, a mindset of, you know, traditional values, and they are able to embrace the legal values as they should be. And they're able to run with it, because these students I'm teaching are also going to be able to teach other students. Very few of them are going to be attorneys, but most of them are going to be social workers, and they're going to be able to reach out to many more women.

So, so far I have taught about almost 300 students, and if each of those 300 students, in their lifetime, could reach out to maybe 1,000 women or 500, you know, that tells you the impact. So, I'm very happy to be able to impart my values on a younger generation.

GORDON: Well, ladies. I thank you both, not only for you participation, but your fight to bring equity to Cameroon, and also shining a light on a problem that is not only reflective in Africa and other countries, but right here in the United States, where we find a lot of this going on behind closed doors. And I thank you both.

Ms. NTUBA: Thank you very much.

Ms. NGASSA: You're welcome.

GORDON: To see a clip from the film Sisters in Law, go to our website at npr.org.

Coming up, black America's fascination with the Sopranos, plus a company that makes greeting cards for convicts. We'll discuss those topics and more on our roundtable.

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