By Josephine Agbonkhese
Barrister Cynthia Chisom Umezulike (PhD) is a London-based legal practitioner, a Constitutional and Administrative Law lecturer at the University of London, an activist and at same time, a fashion muse.
A prolific writer with several published articles and a soon-to-be-published book – “Feminist Rules for Self Empowerment”- to her credit, she holds a first degree in Law from the Igbinedion University in Edo State, a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from Queen Mary University of London, and another in International Law and Criminal Justice. Umezulike recently completed her PhD in Law, focusing on the human rights implication of committing anorexic patients to involuntary treatment.
Her core interests lie in the application of various human rights instruments with a strong focus on the nature of legal protection, liberty and policy powers, privacy and freedom of expression.
Founder of the Child’s Rights Advocacy Journal which champions the rights of young children living in abject poverty to obtain free, quality and formal education she is, aside sitting on the boards of several international organisations, Co-chair and a trustee at Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation. Umezulike is a member of the UK Human Rights Lawyers Association, International Bar Association, and Justice Human Rights Network.
Why did you choose to study law?
My father, Hon. Justice Innocent Azubike Umezulike (OFR, FCIArb, FIIAN), ushered me into my first dance with the law. I watched my father progress from an Attorney to a Professor of Law and later a Judge, for over 20 years; and then Chief Judge of Enugu State for over 13 years. My father was always passionate about the law and what it stood for and worked extremely hard to fulfil the demands of the profession. For over three decades, he refused to embrace modern technology and wrote his judgments and rulings by hand; and he did so diligently, passionately and consistently into the early hours of the morning. I remember his law library at home with so much nostalgia; an assortment of thousands of law books, articles and journals on shelves, tables and sometimes on the floor. Often he would ask I help him find and highlight a section of a journal, law report or book. I found the whole process very fascinating and resolved to thread that pathway. I have however since developed an individualised passion and viewpoint for the law, embracing the fundamental and liberating principles of human rights and advocating for the autonomy, fairness and equality every person deserves regardless of their socio-economic status.
Your Doctoral research, I learned, focused on the human rights implication of committing anorexic patients to involuntary treatment. Can you tell us a bit about that?
My PhD in Law research critically challenges the paternalistic model practice of involuntary treatment of the anorexic body within a human rights law context. Its objective is to establish that anorexia nervosa is not exclusively a psychiatric condition and present a new enforceable alternative approach to the current “doctor-knows-best” treatment method which predominantly reiterates labelling and stereotyping in mental health practice. Contextual clinical narratives pose strong critical arguments reiterating that anorexia nervosa is solely due to mental illness which results to diminished autonomy. Therefore, unconsented clinical interventions are within the rights of medical practitioners and not a violation of the person’s rights. My thesis is, therefore, concerned with how to reconceptualise anorexia by meaningfully engaging and managing the anorexic body without using involuntary, coercive and forceful methods—thereby preserving their autonomous rights, best interests and subjective will.
What is your major discovery or contribution to knowledge?
The outcome of my research revealed that the current traditional approach under mental health laws is shown to produce no long-term recovery benefits or outcome for the anorexic body. Section 2 of the 1983 Mental Health Act (UK) still preserves the one-dimensional strict approach to the care and management of the anorexic body as they are detained for the treatment of both their physical and mental disorder. Through critical research and empirical work conducted in Nigeria, my thesis sustains the deconstruction of anorexia nervosa as exclusively a psychiatric disorder and enables the development of a meaning-centred anorexic body highlighting the limitation of the traditional western medical model to acknowledge the significant cultural and social dimensions that overrule anorexia nervosa. This research showed that the meaning-centred anorexic body is acknowledged and valued as a self-determining agent outside the confined spaces of the Mental Health Act, adverse and resistant to the established stereotypical boundaries and impositions of psychology, law and psychiatry.
In examining Articles 3, 5 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), this research underpins the meaning-centred approach within a human rights-based framework. It, therefore, establishes that human dignity and autonomous choices are integral and indispensable in creating a balanced code of medical ethics.
Which causes do you support?
I devote my spare time to human rights activism and work pro-bono as a global leader for women empowerment on various charity boards across the United Kingdom. The Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation which I Co-chair, has a goal to promote the landmark and cerebral works of Hon. Justice Prof. Innocent Azubike Umezulike OFR, FCIArb, FIIAN, create positive impacts in the life of people, law scholars, lawyers and academics through our programs and projects.
My primary role is to ensure that the foundation is at the forefront of digital activism by implementing online campaigns focused on highlighting current and past legal rights issues. I lead a team of talented creatives in delivering active campaigns and in creating a sustainable cycle of difference by fulfilling and providing resources for development in areas of education, healthcare, recreation, food, water and wellness. This year, we introduced The Innocent Project, a grass-root initiative aimed at empowering small/medium-sized charities, NGO’s and businesses to join forces and resources for a global impact. The first expedition will focus on Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. The Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation is also the first non-governmental organization in Africa actively researching and highlighting the life-threatening illness – SEPSIS.
You often describe yourself as a fashion muse, why?
Fashion agent James St James introduced me to the fashion industry at age 15. I remember telling him that I was just a skinny girl nicknamed stockfish in high school and he vehemently disagreed and said: “No Cynthia, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen and I believe in you”.
As I get older, I try to innovate ways to enjoy and embrace the industry in a meaningful way that represents my vision and value. Activism has become a huge part of my practice, and fashion magazines and brands are increasingly socially conscious of issues affecting the environment, human and animal rights, mental health etc. I was a part of Net a Porter/Porters Magazines collaboration with Tiffany & Co Jewelry for the “Incredible Women Talk” which gave a thought-provoking insight on the critical extinction crises facing the elephants and the urgent need to provide adequate protection. Gurls talk collaboration with Coach provided a safe space for women to share their experiences dealing with mental health, bodily integrity and sexual abuse. Self-Made Submit with Cosmopolitan Magazine challenged established women, entrepreneurs, to use their skills and passion to help other young people reach the next level in business.
I am however grateful for the doors it has opened regarding collaborations with notable brands, editorials and features for renowned magazines such as Vogue Italia, British Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Pride etc., experiences working in Milan, Paris, London, New York, Miami, Zurich, Spain, etc. In the last few years, I have found a more relaxed approach to the industry, accepting invitations to view the collections of renowned designers such as Jigsaw, Stella Jean and Christian Raeburn.
Who motivates you to do what you do?
My father has been my constant motivation, he molded me into the woman I am today and changed my thought process—the way I think and approach everyday challenges and confront obstacles. He made me realise the need to be selfless and show unconditional love even when unrequited. My dad was a proper gentleman, always impeccably dressed and with a great sense of style. He had the most wicked sense of humour and we would crack jokes endlessly. He was a man with exemplary conduct, showing kindness, generosity and humility at all times. I learned the values of hard work, resilience and patience from him. There are morals and values he instilled in me that I cannot disregard in his absence and weirdly, I still feel his stern disapproving eyes whenever I am about to compromise the high standard he has set for me.
What has been your most recent venture?
I have recently completed my book titled “Feminist Rules for Self-Empowerment’. It is a thought-provoking guidance book on how to navigate the murky waters of adulthood and consciously arrive at the appropriate state of self-awareness and self-empowerment. I am working hard towards publishing and launching this year. I am also quietly setting up my company, which will offer weight loss and slimming solution products. I finally feel ready to launch this venture after five years of research, experiments and testing.
Which women do you admire and why?
I am always drawn to the blueprint of Eleanor Roosevelt, a 20th-century influential civil rights activist and human rights proponent. I am always in awe of the strength, tenacity and a sense of purpose of the beautiful Linda Chuba-Ikpeazu, a veteran lawmaker and grass-root philanthropist. British-Ghanaian, Adwoa Aboah, is an exquisite workhorse but most importantly is the founder of ‘GurlsTalk’, which encourages girls to communicate more by authentically expressing feelings and generally having open conversations on issues of sexuality, existence and mental health. I also admire US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an unrelenting voice on issues of diversity, racism and discrimination. I adore Condoleezza Rice, a strong, powerful and intelligent black woman.
What’s next for Cynthia?
The next step in my journey will integrate all my passions (human rights activism, writing, public speaking and creativity) into a cohesive concept that can bring a unique value to the brand. I am still on the journey of self-discovery, learning my limits, evaluating my balance, embracing change and accepting the things beyond my control.