Editor’s note: Connecticut Superior Court Judges Patty Jenkins Pittman and Mary Sommer attended the 12th biennial conference of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), in Arusha, Tanzania, in early May. This is their account of what they call the trip of a lifetime.

We both are members of the National Association of Women Judges and have welcomed the opportunity to travel and meet our peers from across the country. When we learned that the NAWJ’s sister organization was going to hold its biennial meeting in Tanzania, in East Africa, we decided to really expand our horizons and exchange ideas with women judges from around the world.

The theme of the conference was “Justice for All.” Many of the presentations and panel discussions were devoted to the special problems faced by women in developing countries, where women’s rights may be recognized on paper, but where women face pernicious and persistent forms of often brutal discrimination.

Just before we left for Africa in April, hundreds of Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their school by Islamic extremists who believe that women should remain uneducated and subservient. This was a topic of much discussion at the conference, and resulted in a unanimous plea to the Nigerian government and other international actors to do everything possible to address this outrageous violation of human rights. Of note was a direct plea from a Nigerian Supreme Court justice urging that the rights of these children be protected according to the rule of law.

The conference also explored many forms of bias, discrimination and victimization of women, children and others who face social, economic and cultural barriers to accessing justice. One panel addressed emerging issues in human rights for women around the world. A Brazilian judge spoke of revisiting the decision to provide amnesty to those who committed abuses on behalf of the junta of the 1970s and 1980s. Another judge, from Korea, talked about the changing definition in her country of sexual assault within a marriage relationship. A U.S. judge discussed the rise of same-sex marriage as an American human rights issue.

Other presentations were devoted to justice for vulnerable witnesses and victims. They explored challenges faced by the young and the elderly, as well as those affected by physical and mental disabilities—and the responsibility of the court to ensure impartial access. This included a stimulating discussion of the “best interests of the child” principle as applied in different cultures and legal systems.

Arusha, in north-central Tanzania, near the border with Kenya, was a study in contrasts.

Not long ago, it was a sleepy little town devoted entirely to agriculture, mostly coffee plantations, and to the safari business for Western tourists. Set against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, Arusha is still the jumping-off point for excursions to the massive Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plains. Nearby, members of the Maasai tribes follow ancient principles, trying to adapt to modern concepts of justice while respecting tribal culture and ways of life.

But things began to change 15 years ago, when the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was assigned offices in Arusha. Since then, the ICTR has been conducting war crimes investigations and Arusha has been the site of prosecutions against perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. This has made Arusha an important city in the region, with an influx of other African and international residents and visitors.

Not all of the judges’ activities took place in Arusha. Before the start of the conference, Judge Sommer and her husband joined other judges in South Africa, where they met with justices who participated in the establishment of the Constitutional Court that grew out of South Africa’s 1994 constitution.

Those justices and others who serve on that court today, as well as other lawyers and leaders, continue to be involved in implementing constitutionally protected rights in this critical time of transition from apartheid. Judge Sommer’s group also visited Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum and the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi, who inspired all by their courage and fight for justice. The South African travels were informed by the ongoing murder trial of track star Oscar Pistorius, presided over by a woman judge, and by the imminent national elections in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Judge Pittman and her daughter used the preconference week to join other judges for a five-day safari to the Serengeti. The group caught the tail end of the wildebeest migration, with tens of thousands of wildebeests on view at a time. They also saw and photographed the Big Five—buffalo, elephants, rhinos, leopards and lions—along with zebras, giraffes and more. Judge Pittman even heard a lion roar outside her tent one night, near the edge of their safari lodgings. She was assured that lions have not developed a taste for humans.

While supportive of our educational endeavors, the Judicial Branch did not contribute financially to the trip. We paid for our own flights, lodgings and conference fees. We brought back to our jobs a renewed appreciation for the importance of the rule of law around the world, and for the hard work that all judges do, and particularly women judges, that make equal access to justice not just a slogan but a reality.•