Fight for gender equality: Constitutional rights trump culture

Recent years have seen a powerful backlash against the hard-fought gains of the women's movement in many parts of the world, but particularly in southern Africa. A concerted campaign by politicians and spiritual leaders - powered by deeply sexist religious and cultural beliefs - has slowed the progress towards genuine equality and threatened to undermine many of the key achievements of the last few decades. The dreadful Traditional Courts Bill in South Africa is just one of the many ways that women's rights are currently being trampled on by powerful men playing the cultural card.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

October 15th, 2012

Recent years have seen a powerful backlash against the hard-fought gains of the women's movement in many parts of the world, but particularly in southern Africa. A concerted campaign by politicians and spiritual leaders - powered by deeply sexist religious and cultural beliefs - has slowed the progress towards genuine equality and threatened to undermine many of the key achievements of the last few decades. The dreadful Traditional Courts Bill in South Africa is just one of the many ways that women's rights are currently being trampled on by powerful men playing the cultural card.

However, those fighting to stem the fundamentalist religious and cultural anti-equality tide in southern Africa have just received a massive boost - from Botswanan Judge Key Dingake. On its own, his landmark decision to strike down a discriminatory customary law that only allowed men to inherit the family home because it was unconstitutional would have represented a major step forward. However, Judge Dingake went much further than that and, in the process, set a remarkable precedent not only for Botswana but for the whole region.

In his ruling, he made it absolutely clear that discrimination cannot be justified on cultural grounds - that the constitutional right to equality trumps out-dated laws and rules and traditions that entrench inequality and violate women's rights. It is an astonishingly important judgment for a country and a region where culture is often used to sustain male dominance and ensure that women are kept in 'their place'.

And Judge Dingake went further still - rejecting out-of-hand the government's indefensible argument that Botswana society is not ready for equality and calling on judges to launch a new era of judicial activism to promote equality. As in the USA during the civil rights era, Judge Dingake has realised that governments and parliaments won't fight for women's rights, so judges will have to do it. Let's hope his fellow judges are listening...and that they follow his ground-breaking lead.

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