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Clare Herbert
Development Consultant (Kildare, Ireland)

I am a development consultant and educator, blogger and writer. My background is in communications, non-profit management and political work. My interest in international development bred from a period spent working in Zambia in 2007. Please take a look at my website, for more biographical information, or feel free to contact me for more information.


“Sisters in Law” A review.

Published 16th July 2010 - 6 comments - 4091 views -

As part of this year’s Africa Day celebrations, Irish Aid hosted a film evening showing “Sisters in Law”, a feature length documentary based around the Cameroonian justice system in the small Muslim village of Kumba.

I’ve heard it describes as a ‘Cameroonian Judge Judy’. It is, but it’s better.

‘Sisters in Law’ highlights four cases of violence against women and girls and their struggles to achieve justice. Through focusing on specific real life cases, it paints a vivid picture of the human rights abuses faced by women in Western Africa.

Anyone who watches TV or frequents the cinema is familiar with the courtroom drama genre. This is more authentic and more emotive than any Grisham thriller, with less polish and minimal focus on the regalia that comes with our justice system. That said, due process seems to be on solid ground and the justices are fair, punishing both male and female offenders.

The cases are harrowing, particularly those against young girls. A pre-pubescent girl is raped and Manka, a 6-year-old is beaten with a coat hanger by her aunt, permanently scarring her body.

Wives are beaten and raped, and one is fighting for a divorce. Often husbands won’t bother to lie and willing admit to abusing their wives, such is their certainty that the court won’t punish a man. The male offenders are soon knocked off their pedestal of patriarchal arrogance. The justices are fair, wise and often very witty.  They swiftly dispense with nonsense excuses and refuse to allow sweet talk or self-serving monologues.  Judge Judy-esque, indeed.

You can imagine the challenges that come with imposing secular legal rights in a devout Muslim culture. Under Sharia law, men are sovereign over their wives. Of course, the law is not always successful in protecting women, but this film highlights the success stories. Happily, it reinforces an image of African women as strong, positive, capable and vey conscious of their rights.

Importantly, it’s also a well made film. You’ll learn from it, but you’ll also enjoy it.  It’s in English but subtitled in case you miss anything. The characters speak quickly and with a strong African lilt.

The camera is unobtrusive and the stories unfold natural and slowly, without the need for narration.  The story is told through a series of fly-on-the-wall sequences from the initial complaint through to the sentencing in court.

My one gripe would be that some cultural or political background would have set the story on firmer ground. I would happily have watched a prequel to learn more about these women.

Sisters in Law won the prestigious Prix Art et Essai at Cannes, following an extensive spell in art house cinemas in Europe and the US. It’s also available on DVD online. It was directed by Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto.

P.S. Interestingly, while researching this piece, I read that Manka (the young girl who’s story was featured in this film) has been adopted by a British woman.

Doesn’t it seem rather odd that a rich woman gets to pick her child from a movie, like a child with a toy catalogue? Doesn’t it seem like something Madonna would do? Doesn’t it raise all sorts of ethical questions, not least the fact that Manka is shown to be happily living with her family at the end of the film.

Do you think it’s right to adopt a child from their happy but poor family to live in a rich country?

Category: Equality | Tags:


  • Andrea Arzaba on 16th July 2010:

    What a difficult question….

    From one side YES because you might be able to give him/her a better life

    From the other side NO but only if he was really HAPPY and had a loving life with his real family ...

    One double sided question!

  • Luan Galani on 17th July 2010:

    Hi Clare,

    Another insightful post. Thanks.

    It is so moving. Exemplary stories of African womem that endure so much.

    About your pertinent question, I do not think it is right. As you said, it is quite like picking a toy. People think that this is the only way to do good things. No way.

  • Johan Knols on 17th July 2010:

    Hi Claire,

    This article brought back memories about my time in Botswana.
    Over there, the family of a boy has to pay a brides price which is called ‘lebola’. Boy and girl marry and live happily until the boy decides to get another girlfriend. Now the wife wants a divorce. Boy rejects and the situation gets out of hand, especially since the lebola will not be paid back. So much out of hand that boy kills his wife and afterwards himself. These killings are referred to as ‘passion killings’. Many girls nowadays are so scared to marry that they rather stay alone (maybe with a child or two). This means they have to and work and raise their children. But hey, no problem for African women, they are the toughest cookies on this planet.

  • Hanna Clarys on 17th July 2010:

    Looks like a movie I would very much like to see…

    Concerning your question: are you sure that the girl is adopted as a consequence of this film? Maybe the adoption procedures were already going on before the movie was made.

    Secondly, I believe children from poor but loving families should be supported in their own country, with their own family.  At the same time, you can’t accuse all those people who adopt such a child of being immoral. It’s a very delicate issue.

  • Clare Herbert on 18th July 2010:

    @ Johan: Great story - African women sure are tough cookies. If they ran the continent, I think things would be very different.

    @ Hanna: If you’re interested in gender issues even slightly, you’ll love this film. I’m not 100% on the adoption question. In researching the article, I came across a number of reports but none from a hugely reputable source (like a big newspaper or NGO). They were all small publications of the press dept for the film. The fact that the same story was replicated several times leads me to think there’s some truth in it though.

    What I read said that Manka was adopted on foot of the film, as the woman who say it was incredibly touched by her story. Furthermore, the film ends with her being reunited with her biological family and playing happily with her cousins and siblings.

    And, I agree with you. I think a poor but loving family is better than an adopted one.

    Thanks for weighing in.

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 18th July 2010:

    well, I am supporting far away adoption programes but taking kids to totally diffrient cultura is not right. It is not so much about money.

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