Woman dons robes of Kenya's highest court

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Appointment of a woman to Kenya's highest court is a big breakthrough for women in this East African country -- but, quietly, there has been an explosion of women into the field of law here.

Effie Owuor, a graduate of neighboring Tanzania's Dar es Salaam University law school was elevated to the high bench from a post as senior resident magistrate in the Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. She was the first woman appointed to the Nairobi bench, too, but since then has been joined by Joyce Aluoch. Yet another women sits in a Nairobi district court.

Today there are more and more women students in law schools and also on law faculties. In the academic years 1980-81 and 1981-82, for example, about 50 percent of new faculty members on the University of Nairobi's faculty of law were women.

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Most women law graduates take civil service appointments or join business firms. Private law practice remains difficult for them because substantial funds are required to get going. Kenya's office of attorney general employs women as state counsel and legal assistants.

Women have campaigned to have their colleagues appointed to judgeships for some time.

''We don't just need one woman judge, we need several,'' says a woman lawyer interested in cases involving women and children.

''So often a wife is kicked out of a home by her husband and has no possibility of being reinstated to her former life,'' says this lawyer. ''She is defenseless and often destitute. The law as it stands does not provide for abandoned women.''

''The appointment of a woman judge is a great boost to feminine morale in Kenya,'' said another woman. ''We need it badly, for on the whole women get a raw deal in Africa.''

One drawback for Kenya's women lawyers is the difficulty they encounter trying to fit into society. Kenya is a country where men play the predominant social roles.

One woman legal assistant in a public office told a reporter that professional men accept her work and treat her as an equal, but that other men tend to regard her as something of a threat.

Says another women lawyer: ''Men tend to regard us as aggressive, so they turn (for friendship) to women in secretarial and teaching jobs. You know, our men prefer passive rather than independent women.''

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