"Sisters in Law" deliver justice in Cameroonby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
In a small village in the west African nation of Cameroon, two women mete out justice with a special emphasis on women's rights. That's the theme that runs through a new documentary film called "Sisters in Law," which opens at the Twin Cities Bell Museum Friday.
St. Paul, Minn. — "Sisters in Law" is a portrait of contrasts. In the village of Kumba town, the land is lush but the people are poor. Here, water comes from shared wells alongside dusty dirt roads.
In the film, the camera goes inside a nearby building where, in this traditionally patriarchal society, a female judge is sentencing a man for beating his wife.
In this case, Judge Beatrice Ntuba says she was doing more than sentencing this man.
"I was sending a message to the men, it is not because a woman is a woman that gives you the right to beat her up," said Ntuba.
Sitting at her sister's home in Maplewood, where she is visiting for a few days, Ntuba says she and other women in the Cameroon legal system learned that it was custom, not the law, that regarded women as second-class citizens. Some men considered women property they could buy, sell, and abuse.
So Ntuba and others in the legal profession had a duty to help other women understand that they had rights under the law.
"One does not necessarily have to submit to a bad custom just because it is a custom," Ntuba says. "And so what we did is we dusted off our legal books and went back to studying, to our books, to dig out whatever law was gender friendly to the woman."
The film shows Ntuba and chief prosecutor Vera Ngassa working through several cases. In one, the perpetrator is a woman who enslaved and beat a 6-year-old orphan girl. Ntuba sentences the woman to several years of hard labor. In one case, we see a woman whose husband beats her every day unless she has sex with him or he rapes her.
Ntuba says she is not biased against men in her courtroom. She says it's just that women like the battered wife are facing enormous pressure to drop their cases, and they need encouragement and support to take their cases to court.
"In the context of our society, you are a bad woman if you expose the fact that your husband is battering you," she says. "It's like, 'Most men do this,' and, 'Why do your want to expose your home to the outside world?'"
Ntuba says she got her assignment because of a desire to see change from someone in the Cameroonian government.
"Actually the minister of justice decided that he wanted to try it and see what the woman would be like in the position of leadership," she says.
Ntuba says the female attorneys in Cameroon also got help from the International Federation of Women Lawyers. The federation is a nonprofit organization created in 1944. Its aim is to eradicate discrimination against women through legal aid, human rights monitoring and education.
Since the making of this film, Ntuba and Ngassa, the chief prosecutor, have moved on to other towns. But Ntuba says they hear back from the residents of Kumba.
"The population is asking, 'Where did those women go to? Where did those women go to? We think we need them back because they found justice with a feminine face.' It was different. The men could find justice, the women could find justice, and the children could find justice," says Ntuba.
Judge Ntuba will be the keynote speaker at the Minnesota African Women's Association's conference Thursday, at the University of Minnesota law school. She will also speak before screenings of the film at the Bell Auditorium on Friday and Saturday.
- Morning Edition, 06/22/2006, 7:24 a.m.