Attorney Sally M. Fofanah: Making it in a Man’s World - The Judiciary

March 10, 2023

Attorney Sally M. Fofanah

UNDP Liberia

Attorney Sally M. Fofanah: Making it in a Man’s World-The Judiciary

Her Honor Atty. Sally M. Fofanah is one of three women who were selected to join a 15-month intensive magisterial training in 2010 that was designed with support from UNDP, to rebuild the cadre of professional magistrates and judges after the protracted Liberian civil war. The training attracted more than 800 applicants, 65 of whom were selected to participate.

She had graduated from the University of Liberia (UL) with an Economics major and was working as a social worker with a women and girls’ NGO. Her exposure to gender-based violence and the helplessness of indigent Liberians in rural areas who had no knowledge of the law nor legal representation when those cases found their way to the courts, caused her to rethink her life choices.

“As a child, I always wanted to be a medical doctor, but I could not afford to attend medical school as it was expensive. I therefore, went to business college at the University of Liberia.  While in college, I had the opportunity to have started a job with Women Aid INC., a local women’s NGO in Liberia.  Upon my graduation in 2009, and while still employed by this NGO, I saw an advertisement for the Professional Magistrates Training Program (PMTP), and applied,” said Her Honor Atty. Fofanah. This was her entry point into the Judiciary.

Upon completion of the course in 2011, she was appointed and commissioned by former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as an Associate Magistrate of the Tienii Magisterial Court, Tewor District, Grand Cape Mount County. She was the only woman magistrate there with two men counterparts.

“As a woman, it was very challenging because I had just stepped into a man’s world that is deeply steeped in cultural perceptions that discriminate against, and denigrate women, and I decided to be a survivor of the patriarchal society rather than a victim,” she said.

She told of an instance when a man in the village directly dismissed her saying: “Look at this little girl who has … [unpublishable] … in Monrovia and now thinks she can be a magistrate!” Even her boss would not initially assign her any cases until she proved herself by continuously enhancing her knowledge in the law.

The first case she presided over landed her before her then-circuit court judge on a summary proceeding. She subsequently took exception to the Judge’s ruling, and filed before her oversight Justice, where the issue was resolved amicably.

“I have a positive mindset and do not like to give up in the face of challenges. That incident was an eye-opener and it helped me exert myself more to become a better magistrate,” said Her Honor Atty. Fofanah.

While she had participated in several trainings  supported by UNDP and other partners on Women, Peace and Security, Juvenile Justice, Child Labor, Forced Labor, Trafficking in Persons, Sexual and Gender Based Violence, and Domestic Violence, in 2017, she participated in the first West African Sub Regional Conference of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) held in Abuja, Nigeria, and decided to enroll at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law. She excelled throughout making the Dean’s list in all but one semester and graduated in 2021. She immediately thereafter took the Bar exam and was in the same year admitted to the Bar as an Attorney at Law.

In 2022, she was seconded to the James A.A. Pierre Judicial Training Institute at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia as a trainer. She was the first woman to be deployed to the institute as a trainer and remains the only one working alongside three men within the Training Unit of the Institute.

Since her entry into the Judiciary of Liberia, she has served on various committees within the National Association of Trial Judges of Liberia and is the current Treasurer.  In 2021, she was one of the Rapporteurs for the 4th National Judicial Conference of Liberia. In the same year, she also participated in a virtual conference of the National Association of Women Judges.

Her Honor Atty. Fofanah draws inspiration from Liberia’s past and present women Chief Justices, Justices, and senior Judges in the Judiciary of Liberia.

“If they got to the top, I too could get there,” she said. “Having a woman Chief Justice is a positive signal to all women to rise above cultural norms that put women at the back.”

Chief Justice Sie-A-Nyene G. Yuoh, during her commissioning into office in October 2022, vowed to ensure that by the end of her tenure, she would want to leave an all-women bench. Her Honor Atty. Fofanah has taken this as a professional challenge.

“This promise should encourage our women lawyers to put aside timidity and embrace confidence; strive for excellence and be assertive; and build a solid foundation in their education and knowledge of the law in order to ensure that there is a competent pool of women to select the five Justices for the bench, and that majority of Counsellors attending the commissioning of the next Chief Justice will be women lawyers.” 

“The Chief Justice’s statement encourages women in the judiciary to exert ourselves to do more, be more, and not to lag behind men,” she said challenging her colleagues who are “fence-sitters” to discover and fully develop their potential and prepare for the opportunities that lie ahead.

She urged girls and young women to rise above all socio-cultural obstacles that have historically kept women down and “be real dreamers, be believers, be doers and be achievers”. She emphasized the need for “every woman to believe in herself, be passionate in what she does, be committed and have a spirit of perseverance”.

“Women should be trailblazers in many aspects of their lives, they should always strive to accomplish or achieve their Plans of Action. As a woman, if you cannot find a space in society, be the inventor of your own space,” she said.