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African customary law has always regulated the legal relationships of the east African population. It is still significant in the fields of land and personal law (succession and inheritance and the family), and it refers to the principles, rules, customs, and practices of a certain local ethnic community that are accepted by its members as binding. Most research on customary law in east Africa has been done so far in Kenya and Tanzania. As a result of the colonization of east Africa, Europeans imported their own legal systems to their colonial territories, while African customary law remained applicable to the autochthonous population. Subsequently, a discriminatory dual legal and judicial system was established. In order to codify and unify the various sets of African customary law, several research projects carried out investigations of such law in east Africa. At the time of independence, African customary law was considered an important element in the formation of nations in Kenya and Tanzania. After academic interest in customary law gradually subsided, it has gained again in importance due to the conflict with human rights and the revitalization of such law on the ground, as observed on the threshold of the 21st century. However, since legal activists regard African customary law as outdated and in need of reform, future legal reform projects should pay particular attention to intergenerational justice and gender equality.

Article

Helen Dancer

African law and justice systems in the early 21st century are the result of over a thousand years of religious and cultural influences and political change on the continent. As customary and Islamic laws became reinterpreted and formalized by colonial states, women experienced the effects of successive periods of religious and political conquest as an entrenching of patriarchal control in the family and personal law sphere. The 20th century saw African women’s resistance rise from the grass roots as an important force for national liberation. African women’s legal activism grew after political independence and African women lawyers were part of global feminist movements. In the wake of dramatic political changes across Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, the global sphere of rights post-1989 became an enabling frame for women’s legal activism. Political transitions to multiparty democracy, the liberalization of African economies, and a wave of constitutional reforms strengthened women’s rights and gender equality guarantees. The 1980s and 1990s saw the founding of regional and pan-African women’s legal activist organizations, including the Action Committee of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Women in Law and Development in Africa as well as the adoption of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003. In the 21st century, while social, economic, and legal inequalities persist in spite of many gains for women’s rights, some African women lawyers have risen to occupy the highest echelons of the judiciary in several countries and in international courts.