Justice Rachel Sikwese, at 49, is Judge to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT).
The youngest to ever sit at the tribunal, Sikwese will sit as a circuit judge dealing with labour cases among United Nations (UN) 44 000 employees and countries in the United Nations.
Through secret ballot voting by the UN General Assembly, she made the cut with judges from Uganda, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. However, she made one of the four after written and oral interviews from a pool of 325 applicants worldwide.
She will be half time judge with the tribunal for seven years.
Sikwese, the eldest of three, was born February 9, 1970 at Malosa Health Centre. She grew up in a very happy family in the farms across Malawi but spent almost all of her school days in boarding school.
She started school at the age of six at Chikanguya – Zomba. From age 10, she attended boarding school at Katete Girls at Champhira in Mzimba. From where she attended St Marys Girls Secondary School.
Looking back to her youth, she says her only challenge then was that she was not a conformist student.
“I challenged most school rules. Some teachers didn’t understand me, but I never got expelled because they wouldn’t lose a bright student, she says.”
During that time court walls and law books—the world of justice was not one she dreamed of. From St Marys she got selected to the University of Malawi-Chancellor College for a Bachelors of Arts in Humanities—the place where her interest in law began.
“During my first year of Bachelors, I met a female law student Etness Kumwenda. She was very pretty. I never knew until then that pretty girls could study law, she says.” That motivated her to apply for Law.
Upon completing her Bachelor of Laws, Sikwese went on to get a Master’s degree in Law at the University of Indiana in the United States of America (USA).
“My first job was in the Judiciary as Resident Magistrate 21 years ago and I rose through the ranks to Judge of the High Court, she says.”
Though she made UN judge, Sikwese says it was not manna from heaven.
“I have been side-lined for promotions, I have been bullied, been sexually harassed, I have been labelled names in the judicial system. I just focused on the bigger picture, she says.”
The many people who saw the best in her, encouraged and supported her, made her stand out at the UN although she is the most junior judge in the Malawi courts.
“I will be seating with Supreme Court of Justices from France, Italy, USA, Poland, Portugal because I didn’t get discouraged in Malawi. I focused on the bigger picture, stresses Sikwese,” who despite her experiences in pursuit of her career has made strides that the judicial system in the country relishes.
Through her specialty, Labour Justice, she notes achievements she has made through the legal framework, especially in Industrial and Labour Law.
Government approval of her recommendation to increase number of judicial officers at the Industrial Relations Court (IRC) from two to seven, opening of an IRC Registry in Mzuzu; the amendment of the Industrial Relations Court rules to give the IRC Registrar judicial powers.
Her initiative to seat on court circuits in more than 10 districts with high labour prevalence also rank highly as one of her most significant contributions to the labour industry, “Because they not only created jobs for lawyers [five jobs] but also improved access to labour justice to the vulnerable workers in Malawi.”
“My aspiration is to get labour justice to the remotest worker, at the lowest cost possible and with much efficiency, she says.”
Today IRC is a household name in Malawi and that is a very big development.
To be UN judge, she says, her legal expertise, drafting ability, writing proficiency, personal integrity and extraordinary contribution to the Malawi legal system, for instance, the reference books she has written and the manner in which she transformed the IRC were taken into account.
Sikwese, also an expert contributor to the World Bank Group (Women, Business and the Law), where she informs the group on the legal status of women in employment, says.
The laws toward women, are mostly conducive (we have anti discriminatory laws, gender equality laws). However there’s a lack of political will to implement them. For example, she lists senior positions in public office are filled without considering provisions in the Gender Equality Act of 201.
Asked on whether the current labour divide makes women inferior, she says labour does not make women inferior. It is education that women don’t have. We can solve the problem by educating girls and continuous education for women.
She says the current legal status on employment for women in Malawi shows backwardness on implementation of the otherwise best intentioned labour laws.
For example, chapter 55 part II of the Employment Laws, section 5 (I) says no person shall be discriminated against any employment or prospective employment due to sex, race or colour; 6 (I) says the employer shall pay equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of sex, race and others, chances in which most women are side-lined.
Her observation on the hurdles faced by women as they fight for better laws, she says the legal system including lawyers and judges is dominated by men.
This reflects in how cases involving women are handled especially on marital issues (divorce, custody of children, and distribution of property) sexual cases (defilement, rape, sexual harassment and many more)
“Women feel how other women and children and girls feel. I can’t say men feel the same way. Therefore, we need more women legislators, lawyers and judges, she says.”
But there is more to Sikwese beyond court walls.
Apart from pioneering her works in commercial, industrial and Labour laws, she is the founder of a charity organisation- Cancer Support Foundation which helps grassroots level persons on matters of the cancer problem.
She established the charity in 2008, to assist in whatever way she can to alleviate challenges faced by cancer patients.
“I established it after I lost my dear sister and best friend to cancer in 2008, she was 37 years old. I learnt a lot about cancer through her experience”
She says she tries to use that knowledge to help others in her sister’s situation, especially early screening for cancer but also HIV and Tuberculosis.
She also runs Mayi Sikwese Foundation which supports girls from Mtimbuka and Chisegere villages in T/A Mponda, Mangochi to access secondary school education.
“I spend half my time in Chiserege Village where I interact with my neighbours—the villagers. We talk about the importance of education for girls, but they have no means to send their girls to secondary school once selected, she says.”
Sikwese pays their school fees and uniforms to enrol in secondary school, once they are in the system, she says they get support from big organisations such as Campaign for Female Education (Camfed).
Her advice to young women is:
“My principle is to follow my mind and not the crowd. I am not a people pleaser. I can get all my dreams, wishes and ambitions accomplished because I don’t seek people’s approval to be myself.”
She delves more on how she succeeded.
“I am a very liberated person, I follow my heart but firm and very principled. I have instilled these same principles in my two children, she says.“
“Without challenges I would not have achieved much. Adversity helps me to focus more. My achievements are the sweetest revenge to my distractors!
“I was born an extremely focused person. I am much organised, close to a perfectionist. My vision is to be the best that I can be at any particular time in my life.”
Through her eyes today and beyond, she says the future of women is in education.