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June/July 2006
Justice Served on a Hot Plate
The Satya Interview with Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba

 

Left, Vera Ngassa (state prosecutor), right, Beatrice Ntuba (judge).
Photo courtesy of Women Make Movies

Screened at more than 90 festivals worldwide and winner of the Cannes Film Festival Prix Art et Essai, Sisters in Law is the newest documentary from internationally renowned director Kim Longinotto and co-directed by Florence Ayisi.

In the small town of Kumba, Cameroon, two women resolute in revolutionizing their community are making progress that could change the world. Captivating, heart-wrenching and at times comical, Sisters in Law trails state prosecutor Vera Ngassa and court president Beatrice Ntuba as they help women fight cases of abuse, despite pressures from family and community to remain silent. Members of a mostly Muslim community where women are considered second-class citizens, their mission is more than taxing.

Sisters in Law documents several stories including that of six year-old Manka, covered in scars, who has run away from an abusive aunt to whom she was entrusted. A battered wife Amina, who bravely brings her violent husband to court despite intense pressure to remain silent. It is the first time a man has been convicted of spousal abuse and the case will set a precedent. And nine year-old Sonita daringly accuses a neighbor of rape.

With unwavering compassion, Ngassa and Ntuba dole out criticisms, witticisms and justice, handing down stiff sentences to those convicted. Both women are members of the International Association of Female Lawyers better known by its Spanish acronym FIDA. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to speak with Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba about their struggle for gender equality in the face of tradition.

Where did your passion for the law come from? What inspired you to enter the courtroom?
Beatrice Ntuba: Actually, as I often say, it was inborn. It was just there in me, fighting for justice and the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden. I have never liked injustice, always wanted to see people get their fair share. In Cameroon, there are many exams you can write to different professional schools, yet I found myself writing only the one for the magistrate. My heart and my head was for law. I find my job, even though very taxing and dangerous, to be very fulfilling. There is nothing more fulfilling to me than ‘ justice served on a hot plate’; making an impact and a change in my generation by impacting other people’s lives. In a world with so much injustice, no effort is too small or insignificant if even just one person gets relieved of his burdens.

Vera Ngassa: I was a precocious child, always ready to talk against injustice and that which is not fair. I think from the age of nine I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. And my father too, encouraged me a lot. He always called me his little lawyer and I think that is where the idea originally came from. But when I was about 15 years old in junior high, we read To Kill a Mockingbird and I was deeply touched and inspired by Atticus Finch—not just his legal arguments in court, but everything he stood for and the values he taught his children. Later on in school a pedagogic advisor sent to orientate us on career profiles told me I could not possibly do law, that I was too weak. But I had already made up my mind.

What are some of the hardships women face in Cameroon?
BN: On a broad level it is like women everywhere, discrimination because of gender. But in Cameroon there are other issues like traditions and customs. Women are considered property, so there is a heavy hand upon them to be seen and not heard. Ignorance works against women in Cameroon. It starts when they are girls. You don’t really want to send a girl child to school, so then they become the traditional wife. They never get a chance to know their rights. Even the women who are literate don’t know anything about their legal rights.

I have an affinity for gender-based matters and fighting for the rights of women in this society. As a woman, I think it is incumbent upon me to bring other sisters out of their problems. I am also inclined to issues concerning children, this is not to insinuate that men don’t have a ‘fair hearing’ before me, it just means I am willing to bend over to come to the rescue of women and children. Men already have so much going for them.

VN: Just yesterday I was telling a few colleagues that as a woman in Cameroon and in Africa, people have to look twice before they see you. You know, if you are with a man, they look at the man. But as a woman, you have to do something extra for them to take notice of you. People see you as a woman, they see weakness, they see frailty and they see inability. As a woman you have to fight and work very hard and make an impression.

In 1993, when the world was preparing for the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995, there was a reawakening amongst the female lawyers in Cameroon. We decided to dust off our books and really see what the law said about women. We realized that much was just lying dormant. You see, no matter how much we are gender activists, if there is no tangible redress for wrong done to women, we end up just making impressive speeches. We decided to start FIDA, the Spanish acronym for International Federation of Women Lawyers and reach out and teach women everywhere. Because some of the older women were set in their ways, I started teaching at the university to catch them young. I actually created the syllabus for my department.

Do you see yourself as a feminist, an activist on a mission to help women fight tradition?
BN: I don’t know whether I am a feminist. I think I am more of an activist. I used to wonder why it took the United Nations to declare it, but from the day I was born, I didn’t think a man was superior to me by the very fact that he was a man. I totally believe in the United Nations declaration, that women’s rights are human rights. I want to see that becoming practical, not remaining in the books. Women should not consider men, their husbands, superior. Men think women, even some women think women are not even part of the human race! I think strongly that a woman should go as far as she can go. She should be allowed to pursue her own dreams. So if that makes me an activist, then I am an activist.

VN: Definitely. As an African who believes in Africa, I understand quite a lot about our traditions. As a woman I understand what it means for those traditions to be against you. And as a lawyer, I am in a position to tell women exactly what the law offers them. I don’t see myself as only a government official, I am on a mission, this is my life’s dream.

You hear cases of men raping girls, husbands beating wives, women struggling to find a place of peace in this world. How do you cope with the stress of what you witness?
BN: It is a lot of stress, especially when you have a heart for people, a heart for justice, equality and fair play. There are times when I go back home and ask myself, how could people do this to each other? I can’t really understand it. In Sisters in Law, there are a lot of light-hearted things said. But it doesn’t water down the seriousness of the matters, it is just when you say some of those things it lifts up your spirits. Believe you me, the rape of a nine year-old girl is traumatizing to the victim and to me as the judge. When you see the little girl Manka who was beaten by her aunt and you see her scars… Well, you understand why my face was the way it was when Vera was showing me the scars. It was a horrible sight. I think at the end of the day as a judge, knowing that you served justice hot and fresh it does give you some satisfaction. You can ask Kim, a week after closing Sonita’s [a 9 year-old rape victim] case, we went to visit her. And suddenly she had grown up, looking taller in one week! It was the relief that she got justice. That something was done. That is the way a judge feels too. When you see the victim is dependant on you, all their hope dependant on you and you feel you have done justice, then the stress goes off.

VN: I have a firm belief in God. I think that my faith keeps me going. I mean, what you see in the film is not as stressful as some of the things I have seen. I have seen an old man of 75 years burn up his older sister who is about 80—some very bad cases of murder. But, if you allow yourself to get down by one case, you can’t do any more. I have to keep going and keep strong. I think a clear conscience helps a lot too. There’s nothing like a guilty conscience to worry you at night. But I have got to work with an open heart and a clean mind to do justice. And at the end of the day I have to make sure that I have not hurt someone or done injustice to anyone.

Tell us about being filmed for Sisters in Law. How did you meet Kim Longinotto?
BN: Actually, Kim came to Cameroon with Florence Ayisi, who is Cameroonian. I had gone to university with Florence. She contacted me, telling me of Kim doing positive stories on women—Kim only does stories of women. They were tired of the stories in the West about Africa—it is not all war, famine, AIDS and disaster. There are good things. Kim, Florence and one other woman came to Cameroon, this ‘man’s world,’ to focus on women and children. So, I was immediately interested. Because that is what it is all about, seeing that women and children get out from where they have been placed by this society and brought up to where they are supposed to be.

VN: It was really like two dreams coming together. They wanted to do a positive spin on Africa. That got me thinking because a few years back Transparency International said that Cameroon was the most corrupt nation in the world. As a person who loves my country, as a public servant who serves my country with all my being, I didn’t like that image. Many times I would wish that the world would know that Cameroon was not such a bad place. I am not contradicting Transparency International because they are the experts, but I don’t know how they got their statistics. I believe better of my country.

But what really got me interested was when they said they wanted to do this documentary on gender issues. That is something we have been striving for. I knew I had to get involved. But I would say, I did not know I was making a big screen movie. I was not prepared. As a magistrate we are supposed to live a very reserved kind of life. I thought I was doing a BBC documentary that may be showed on television. When I saw myself on the big screen for the first time, I said, “Oh my, is that really me?” I have seen it many, many times…It is the one film you will always catch me watching again and again. There is just something about it. Not because I am in it. But because of the way the stories just grab hold. It is action-packed and really interesting.

Are you still in touch with people in the film? If so, what’s happened to everyone since?
BN: Actually, being a judge, I have to try and be aloof from my victims. I cannot really go too close, even if I would like. I know that they are in town and I know that they are fine. I know Manka is with her uncle and is doing fine.

VN: Yes, a lot. Kim often sends money to Amina [who received the divorce] through me. So, I go and see her and her little daughter and make sure that the money is spent on what it was sent for. Once in awhile I see Ladi. I am in touch with Manka’s uncle. When I returned with the DVDs, I invited Amina and Nadie over to watch it in my house. We had a nice time watching it together and laughing.

How hard is it not to get personally or emotionally involved?
BN: It is so hard. There is no way to avoid it. My only problem is Sonita. I told Kim that we really need to get her out of here by some means. Because of the trauma in the society. I don’t think rape has been accepted by any society, rape stigmatizes you. And for a closed society like ours, you may not end up being married because the rape follows you. And for an African, believe you me, marriage is very important. So what bothers me most is Sonita and what her future will look like.

What do you want the audience to learn and take away after seeing Sisters in Law?
BN: That women should be given a chance in life. That women should learn to speak up for themselves. We live in a society in Cameroon, in most of Africa, where women are not even allowed to complain. Living with a man who batters you, who insults you, and most people in society expect you to report to his family. It is all traditional. We were very lucky in Sisters in Law to have a female police officer in charge of the unit at the time. Because the women are so afraid to make a complaint because male police officers always tell them, “This is a family affair—go and settle it in the family.” So they go back home and you know as well as I do many women have lost their lives to domestic violence. You send the woman back and the man is just waiting to pounce on her again and say, “How dare you go and tell!” Our society is such that they don’t even sympathize with women who have been battered by their husbands.

Men should have it drummed in their heads that women have rights. In our culture, you marry a woman by paying a bride price and she becomes the property of the man. And so the men have it in their heads that they own their wives, even though the law says no. If women know their rights, they will be able to put their foot down. That they have a right to make decisions. You can see in the movie where Amina was in a family meeting where they were trying to convince her to withdraw the case. That happens frequently. You are not supposed to expose your husband or you are looked upon as a very bad woman for bringing your husband to court. So you understand why hers was the first case that went through for domestic violence.

There are lots of lessons to draw from Sisters in Law. Even the case with Manka, it is normal to use a cane to correct a child in Africa. The woman did not know that what she was doing would land her in jail, because to her she has the right to beat a child. She did not know that the law protects the child, that children have their own rights. It is an eye opener to the men and the women to rethink the way things are and that they should be different.
VN: I want the audience to know that the film is real, we are not acting. There is nothing fake. Mostly, I want them to know that the courts are approachable. We are here for them and will help them.

What gives you hope?
BN: That is a big question. First of all, I am a Christian. I believe in hope from above, in strength and wisdom from above.

Secondly, I think there is some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us and that if you could bring people to realize why we should all want to be better, we would all be better. Hope for the women, for the African women, for the Cameroonian women, for the women in the world. I have that hope. I believe that one step at a time things will change. Customarily court judges are men. So I am the one to provoke the women. I ask them why they accept such things and let them know that if they bring in a complaint application, I will follow it up to the end.

VN: I think I am a very optimistic person. Sometimes I get depressed but not for long. I think I see so much good happening despite all that I see around me. And the few successes like the ones we see in the film, they give you a lot of hope. That the things we have been preaching for years can actually happen in Cameroon—women’s rights, human rights and the establishment of justice. It is possible.

For more information on Sisters in Law, visit www.wmm.com/sistersinlaw.


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