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Sandie Okoro concluded the Annual Meeting program for Friday, April 14 with her stirring keynote address, “Seen and Not Heard”. This report summarizes the keynote which is now online.
Sandie Okoro has been Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank Group since February 2017. She grew up in Balham, London, as the child of a teacher from Nigeria and a nurse from Trinidad. After university, she qualified as a barrister, then re-qualified as a solicitor and joined Schroders, rising to head of legal counsel; she then moved to Barings as its global general counsel, and after seven years, became global general counsel at HSBC Global Asset Management. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the City University of London in 2014.
Okoro’s keynote focused on gender-based violence: a scourge that, she said, has taken the lives of over 200 million women worldwide, costs the world $1.5 trillion per year, and destroys the lives of millions of women and their families. The world would be a different place if these women had not been lost. She wove together her own life story, her encounters with women victims of gender-based violence, and the stories of three women who used the law to be seen and to be heard.
Hadijatou Mani Koraou was sold into slavery for $695 as a 12-year-old girl in Niger. Under the custom of wahiya, she became a servant and concubine. She was raped and beaten by her master Naroua for nine years. In 2003, Niger abolished slavery and in 2005, Naroua freed her but would not let her go, claiming that she was his wife. She escaped and went to court to get her rights of freedom recognized; the court found she was never legally married and was free to start her life over. Naroua appealed, and the appeal court reversed; the Supreme Court of Niger quashed the appellate decision, and the appeal court on remand found that she had a right to divorce. Meanwhile, she had married a man of her own choice, and in response to a complaint by Naroua, the criminal court had sentenced her to imprisonment for bigamy; she had appealed, and filed charges against Naroua for slavery; and the appeal court had released her from prison. Hadijatou then invoked international law at the ECOWAS Court of Justice, arguing that the government of Niger had failed to protect her rights.
The ECOWAS Court’s decision found that Niger had become responsible for every form of human rights violation against Hadijatou, because of the tolerance, passivity and inaction of the judicial authorities in failing to take positive action against Naroua’s enslavement of Hadijatou. However the Court found her imprisonment was not arbitrary because it was part of a judicial process. The Court awarded her 10 million CFA francs.
Maria da Penha was a pharmacist in Brazil. In 1983, her husband tried to kill her twice: he shot and paralyzed her and then he tried to electrocute her in the bath. She filed for separation. The prosecutors brought charges against him, but he was not sentenced until 1991; he appealed and for 19 years he did not go to jail. She was seen in a wheelchair but not heard. She brought a complaint to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights against Brazil for perpetrating violence. The IACHR’s landmark ruling in 2000 found that Brazil had failed to protect Maria da Penha’s rights, and that this was a pattern of ineffective actions by Brazil against domestic violence against women, involving a failure to fulfill Brazil’s obligation to prevent violence against women. In 2002, Maria’s ex-husband was finally arrested, but he only served two years. Finally, Brazil enacted in August 2006 the Law Maria da Penha—one of the best laws against domestic violence in the world. Maria da Penha is now 72, and a women’s rights activist.
Nahide Opuz was married to a man who repeatedly threatened her, beat her and her mother, stabbed her, and tried to run her and her mother down with a car. When they asked the police to protect them, the police treated this as domestic violence and did almost nothing. Finally, Nahide’s husband shot and killed her mother. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but the court released him after a short stay in prison. When he was released, he again threatened to pursue and kill Nahide. She brought a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. In a landmark judgment, the ECHR found that State failure – even if unintentional – to protect women against domestic violence violates women’s right to equal protection under the law. They found that the general judicial passivity in Turkey toward domestic violence created a climate conducive to domestic violence, and that the violence suffered by Nahide and her mother was gender-based and a form of discrimination.
Okoro urged efforts to use the law, change the culture and change the implementation of law that aids gender-based violence. She pointed out that economic empowerment is also important to prevent gender-based violence. While she had personally been lucky enough not to face these challenges, gender-based violence or the threat of it still affects women everywhere and limits their choices. She closed with a quotation from Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The audience gave a standing ovation.
Amy Porges practices international trade law in Washington, DC.