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Cherie Blair: 'Africa Needs Better Lawyers'

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Elisabeth Braw wrote this article for Metro www.metro.lu.

Formalities don't bother Cherie Blair. For Metro's interview, she arrived a couple of minutes late, but immediately apologized - her iPhone was broken and needed to be fixed. (She owns an iPad, too.) Mrs. Blair, professionally known as Cherie Booth, has gone down in history as Britain's perhaps most controversial First Lady, mocked for everything from her career ambitions to her clothes and her working-class background. In person, though, she's affable and witty.

Mrs. Blair, a mother of four, still works as a lawyer and judge. Today she also heads the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, where she helped initiate the International Widows Day. It will be officially celebrated for the first time this June. And now she's setting her sights on another goal: educating African lawyers.

Africa struggles with droughts, famine and wars. Does it really need more lawyers?
It doesn't need more lawyers. What it needs are well-trained lawyers who can deal with internal problems, like making sure that the justice system is free and fair, and internationally, because as Africa opens up, it's becoming the latest frontier where companies want to invest. Africa needs business law expertise to make sure the interests of Africans are taken into account. Yes, people need food and education. But one of the cornerstones of any society is a well-functioning legal system.

Doesn't political instability prevent even the best-educated lawyers from making a difference?
The countries we're working with, like Rwanda and Sierra Leone, are countries that have emerged from terrible conflicts. Now they're moving ahead to establish better governance. Rwanda is growing at an incredible rate. It has reduced child mortality in a way that could only be dreamed 10 years ago. Of course, you can't guarantee political stability anywhere, as we're seeing in North Africa and even Italy. But the lawyers we're training will educate their home countries about the importance of the rule of law. And remember that international finance is complicated. Africa is just now beginning to open up, and countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone need legal expertise in international finance. British law is the basis of most mercantile law around the world, and I want us to share our expertise with African lawyers.

When you meet political leaders from Africa, do you tell them, "What your country needs is a few better-trained lawyers"?
[Laughs] No! I don't presume to tell Africa anything. The people I meet, like President Kagame of Rwanda and President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, know very well what their countries need. There's a lot of good work going on for Africa, but its often very uncoordinated and based on what we Westerners think Africa needs. When I first talked to President Kagame about what Rwanda needs, my first thought was human rights. But he said, "My most pressing need is bolstering the Justice Department, because after the genocide, we were left with just a handful of lawyers in the entire country." He desperately needed people who could draft laws, for example one banning domestic violence. Drafting a law is a real skill.

Your other main interest is women's rights. Isn't that more important than training Africans how to write laws?
I don't see those two things as mutually exclusive. I have my own women's foundation. But I'm a lawyer, so it's easier for me to galvanize the legal profession to meet the needs of African governments. There's lots of fantastic work being done for Africa. I don't want to replicate that. I'm a working-class girl from Liverpool, and was brought up by a single mother, but I've met presidents, prime ministers, Popes, Queens. That's something I could never have imagined. After I left 10 Downing Street, I wanted to do something with that experience and focus on something that didn't duplicate work that was already being done. I started my women's foundation, focusing on economic empowerment, because what women need, in addition to education, is economic empowerment. They need the right to make and keep their own money. I saw that with my own mother. Her husband abandoned her, and she had to take me and move in with her mother-in-law. Why? Because Britain didn't have equality laws, and when she wanted to buy a home, she was told she couldn't to do because she didn't have a man to sign for her. Today that still happens in Africa and Asia. When women are allowed an income for themselves we'll see real change. Through this work I realized that Africa needs to bolster its legal capacity as well. My husband's work focusing on strengthening political institutions in Africa; I focus on the law.

You went from a humble background to become a successful barrister and judge, having children along the way. Don't tell me it was an easy ride.
No, it was not! I've been a lawyer for 35 years, and now my own daughter is becoming a lawyer, too. In her class, there are over 50% women. When I went to law school, there were just a handful of women. I was lucky because I was the top student in my year, but when I applied for my first job, people said to me, "but we don't take women," or "we're very liberal, but we've already got a woman." I didn't stand up and say "this is a breach of equality legislation," because that was the way thing worked at the time. When I applied for my first permanent job, the employer said "the top candidates are a boy and a girl, so obviously we'll give it to the boy." The boy was Tony Blair. It's still a struggle for women today, particularly when it comes to questions of work versus family.

How has this experience shaped you?
I've developed pigheadedness! If people say, "you can't do it," I say, "I'll show you that I can!" I've learned when to speak out. You do have to learn when to bide your time and when to speak out, and I don't always get it right.

You've faced the same sort of vitriol as Hillary Clinton, a fellow lawyer. What's your own explanation?
Hillary was a mentor to me. Under her leadership the U.S. State Department under her has always focused on women's issues in a way that I doubt a male Secretary of State would have done. Hillary is an intelligent woman and has so much to offer, but so often when people speak and write about her, it's about her appearance. People's dislike of us don't just have to do with us, but also with the fact that we're married to remarkable men who themselves have attracted controversy. Sometimes it's easier to attack the spouse than it is to attack the politician. Just look at the current criticism of Queen Rania.

People will say, "Tony Blair's wife has founded a charity to help Africa," not "Cherie Booth has founded an organization to train African lawyers." Doesn't that bother you?
Once upon a time it did. When I first moved to Downing Street I insisted on being called Cherie Booth. The people at Downing Street said, "But you can't use Cherie Booth because nobody will know who that is." When we left No. 10 and I set up my women's foundation, I didn't want to use my name at all. But I realized that people know who Tony Blair is. Since I wanted to make an impact, it's better to acknowledge the fortunate coincidence that I'm married to a remarkable man.