Florence Shu-Acquaye, J.D., LL.M
Professor of Law
Shepard Broad Law Center
Championing the Cause of African Women
During the summer months, when many were traveling with their families to exotic locations for adventure and leisure, Shepard Broad Law Center professor Florence Bih Shu-Acquaye, J.D., LL.M., was visiting her homeland, the Republic of Cameroon, to work with women afflicted with HIV and AIDS.
Having observed the increasing epidemic for more than 10 years, Shu-Acquaye is passionately driven in her quest to help afflicted African women. Over the past decade, she has conducted research and examined how African customary and statutory laws, such as polygamy, widow inheritance, and other practices, have contributed to the entrenchment of HIV/AIDS on the continent. She firmly believes that changing and amending many of the existing family laws may help to curtail the spread of the disease.
Shu-Acquaye, who teaches business entities, sales, contracts, negotiable instruments, and comparative corporate governance, is so involved and committed to her humanitarian cause that she decided to take a sabbatical for the 2006 fall semester. At the time of this interview, she was packing up her NSU office and ready to return to Africa to volunteer her legal expertise to the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA), an organization dedicated to addressing the challenges faced by women living with HIV/AIDS.
According to the professor, there are currently few policies and laws governing women with HIV/AIDS in the country, which results in the women suffering abysmal existences brought on by societal, cultural, political, and financial realities.
“The SWAA plays a pivotal role in bringing about social, economic, and even political change in the country, and is often consulted on medical policy issues,” Shu-Acquaye explained. “But the legal component has been more challenging. To date, there has been little or no review of policies and laws that govern women and HIV/AIDS. There has
been no systemic assessment of the needs in this area and no clear strategy in place to address these issues.”
Shu-Acquaye said she intends to assist SWAA principally in the area of reviewing existing policies and drafting policies and laws that would regulate women with HIV/AIDS in critical areas that have previously been only marginally addressed. These areas include inheritance law, marriage, adoption, and basic human rights laws relating to the rights of women living with HIV/AIDS.
She hopes to use her knowledge of the social and cultural customs of the communities to propose accept-able laws that will benefit African women.
“Marriage is a paramount issue of concern. Under customary law, a woman is generally considered the property of the man because he bought her with his money, goats, chickens, cows, or whatever the tradition or custom of that ethnic tribe may have asked for as the bride price,” she said. “The woman comes into the marriage knowing she is second to her husband and expected to be subservient to him because he has ‘paid for’ her. The statutory laws also tend to foster this trend with blatant discriminatory laws in favor of men. In Cameroon, for example, it can be said a man has committed adultery only if it was carried out in the matrimonial home. Whereas, for a woman, it can be anywhere. What are the chances a wife will catch her husband in their home?”
As a graduate of two of the most well-known law schools in the United States, Stanford (J.S.D.) and Harvard (LL.M.), Shu-Acquaye uses an Afrocentric foundation combined with an American education to inform Western society about the marginal existence of her African sisters.
One of the major obstacles Shu-Acquaye wants to address is the issue of inheritance law, which customarily allows—upon the death of a married man—the transfer of possession
of his widow and children, along with the couple’s property, to his brother or closest male relative.
“There are all sorts of customary traditions, including genital mutilation and polygamy, that make it difficult for women to have quality lives,” Shu-Acquaye said. “As a result, the whole issue of HIV/AIDS becomes a major concern.
In the African tradition, the man is head of the household, and the more wives and children he has, the more successful he is viewed. So if he ‘inherits’ his brother’s wife who is infected, this marriage will likely result in the transmission of the AIDS virus to the brother, and possibly more people, given that the brother may have other wives.”
This effect, she explained, is multiplied if either party has an extramarital relationship. “There has to be a change in mindset. However, we have to understand the culture and educate people in light of that understanding,” she added.
She has written articles about the crisis, and is currently finishing a book, Women, the Law and HIV/AIDS: A Conundrum for the Legislature in Africa? She realizes she
is tremendously blessed, having grown up with parents who were both in the teaching profession and who taught the family the value of education and its role in escaping poverty and despair.
Shu-Acquaye sums up her involvement as a call to arms: “I feel a tremendous obligation to positively affect the lives of women and their families, and help in some little way to ease the burden of those living with this deadly disease.”