Custody, Maintenance, and Succession: The Internalization of Women’s and Children’s Rights Under Customary Law in Africa

In this Note, the author examines the process of international human rights norm internalization into areas traditionally governed exclusively by customary law, and the resulting evolution of customary law. Assuming, arguendo, that customary law is to be modified, I argue that a societal norm internalization approach is the most effective means to bring customary law into conformity with international human rights law. After a brief discussion of the fieldwork on which I rely, this Note describes the historical influence of colonialism on the development of customary law in Africa, with a particular focus on the repugnancy clauses of the colonial era. Next, it explores the societal norm internalization approach and how it has taken advantage of the openings provided by the contestation of cultural norms on the local level in rural Africa. The author then explains the evolution of customary law in independent, post-colonial Sierra Leone. In particular, the Note examines norm internalization in Sierra Leone in the context of child custody and maintenance by exploring the interplay between international human rights law, customary law, and the formal legal system. These cases implicate both women’s and children’s rights issues and illustrate the internalization or acceptance of human rights principles in customary law. Finally, the author contrasts this customary law context with that in contemporary South Africa.