A Model of Women’s Empowerment in Africa: Dr. Conceptia Denis Ouinsou

Written by Yanick St. Jean and Pedro Marius Egounleti (posted from Benin, Africa)

Docteur Conceptia Denis Ouinsou was born in Haiti, September 21, 1942 in Grande Saline, a city whose name indicates its main activity – the harvest and sale of marine salt. Her mother thought it best to send her to the capital for schooling. She attended the Soeurs de la Ste Trinité and Collège St. Pierre, schools guided by the American Anglican values of obedience. Then she entered the Université d’Etat d’Haiti earning a Licence in Social studies and Administration, and another in Legal Studies.

Valedictorian of her Law School class, Conceptia Denis earned a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in France, which she completed. She married a Beninese, came to the country in 1977 and, immediately, joined the faculty of Law at the University of Abomey-Calavi. She has lived in Benin 31 years.

Aggregated in 1985, she became the departmental Chair of the School of Law, then director of Academic Affairs and, later, Minister of Higher Education and Social Research. From this post she was named Counsel of the Constitutional Court then, in 1998 President of the Court (Chief Supreme Court Justice). In the exercise of her function, she met no resistance: « Je n’ai pas peur. Je continue toujours mon chemin». For her success, Docteur Ouinsou credits her mother:

There is nobility of character that can be found everywhere. My mother had natural nobility. She demanded excellence. Nothing was ever good enough for her. I always feared her nitpicking ‘you are first in your class, but your grade average decreased; such and such grade decreased in comparison with last month.’ She pushed me to produce my maximum, and I believe it is what shaped me. This may be why some people think I am too stiff, too stern. One should always be in quest of the excellence. Today, it is not sufficient to be good.

Being a Professor of Law has been her goal:

In our system, teaching full-time in the School of Law requires an aggregation, which is very difficult to obtain. I was determined. It was the only objective of my life which I reached in 1985. Everything that happened after that was sheer luck.

She recognizes limitations placed on women’s achievements, but also wants women to sweat.

From the start, women meet many obstacles that restrict progress and are hard to surmount. I remember in the amphitheater male students saying all women must have a husband always. I would ask them to bring me the chapter that says so. To them, a woman who doesn’t have a husband is a prostitute, regardless of her life. These myths do not encourage the development of women who feel obliged to conform to the mold, find a husband, and open themselves to additional constraints of married life.

Solving the problem requires education and hard work.

If girls can have sufficient education, I believe they are capable of major accomplishments. But I also think it is necessary that women work hard. I would not take an incompetent woman over a competent man only because she is a woman. At equal competence, I take the woman. I am sorry to say it, but I think each person must be able to “mouiller le maillot” (sweat) before receiving anything. And it is why my leitmotif is, a woman must work to be able to receive what she asks. Women should not count entirely on the law for promotion.

Beninese journalist Abdul-Wahab Bakary described Docteur Ouinsou as

une femme qui ne se laisse pas faire. She is a high-caliber lawyer, a prominent figure with the capacity to address issues and give her opinion based on the law. She has nothing to envy from a man.

Graduate student Florence Megninou agrees that “in the political sphere, Madame Ouinsou does not let herself be intimidated by men.”

New members of the Court took the oath on Saturday June 8. Before she left office in June, Docteur Ouinsou received many decorations from governments of Germany, Haiti and Benin. On Friday June 6, she was enthroned Princess of the Royal Court of Allada by the King of Allada.


  1. Joe

    Very important post Yanick and Pedro. We get so little positive news on Africa, and on Benin, in the US. Thanks for giving us a major lesson from Africa. Dr. Ouinsou is a model for us all.

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