Many mountains still to climb for Lesotho women

Senate Masupha’s landmark challenge to Lesotho’s discriminatory chieftainship laws earned her rave reviews from many people, with some claiming that she had clearly inherited the intrepid genes of her father, Gabasheane Masupha.

May 28th, 2013

Senate Masupha’s landmark challenge to Lesotho’s discriminatory chieftainship laws earned her rave reviews from many people, with some claiming that she had clearly inherited the intrepid genes of her father, Gabasheane Masupha. Unfortunately, those might be the only thing she does inherit from her father after the Constitutional Court in Maseru – rejecting her legitimate claim to the ‘Mamathe chieftainship purely on the basis of her gender.

The only child of Chief Gabasheane Masupha and his wife, ‘Masenate, Senate went to court after she was prevented from becoming chief following her parents’ deaths. Standing in Senate’s way was the ‘Law of Lerotholi’ – an age-old piece of customary legislation, which clearly discriminates against women. The current Lesotho constitution provides for non-discrimination based on gender. While it does protect customary law to a certain extent, the constitution is the supreme law of the land and should take precedence over customary law if there is a clash between the two.

There clearly appeared to be a clash in the Senate Masupha case – but the judges of the country’s highest court thought differently. Sadly their thinking is in line with the majority of people in Lesotho, where . If they had ruled in her favour, they would have struck an important blow for women’s rights and greater equality in the country. But instead they have confirmed that women remain second class citizens – despite some recent advances.

For example, Lesotho’s Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act 2006 removed married women’s minority status and provided them with economic rights so that they could freely engage in economic activities. However, women still face economic suffocation if their husbands die before them, with a string of cases of widows being illegally dispossessed of their land and assets by family members, even though they are still expected to somehow bear the burden of raising their children.

The discrimination against women also rears its ugly head in terms of HIV and AIDS, with women being at greatest risk because of the unequal power relations within relationships – and widespread acceptance of, and impunity for, sexual violence. Women cannot negotiate safe sex with their husbands or boyfriends. Socially subordinate due to the dictates of discriminatory customary law, many women will not even go and get tested without their husband’s consent. Equality will not halt the spread of the epidemic but it would certainly help to slow it by giving women greater control of their lives and bodies.

Needless to say, men feature much more prominently than women in the media despite there being more women in Lesotho than men. And critically, men are cited in positions of power and influence – as politicians, business executives, security officers and civil society leaders, while women feature predominantly feature in positions of weakness – such as victims of rape and domestic violence or as people living with HIV.

Surely news would be interesting – and more realistic and relevant – if there were stories about men and women doing a broader, less ‘traditional’ range of things. There should be more articles about men as fathers and care-givers; more about female bus drivers, military officers, pilots and politicians. But many in the media think the same way the Constitutional Court judges thought – the same way that most Basotho think. Women are housewives, subsistence farmers, mothers and victims. And if they are almost always portrayed that way in the media, it will be very hard to change the minds of future generations of boys and girls.

And girls face a host of problems beyond the lack of different female role-models. Over the past decade, the has hovered around 36 percent for a variety of reasons – from poverty to being forced to look after the family when both parents die to the underlying notion that it is still more important to educate the boys in the household. This leaves girls facing an uncertain future without the education or skills to build a brighter life for themselves. And places them at greater risk of being exploited or abused – or lured across the border into South Africa by the promise of work. Once again, greater equality would not solve all these problems overnight but girls would have a better chance in life – a more equal chance in life.

Many people hoped that Senate Masupha’s case would contribute to greater gender equality. Instead, the decision was another example of the entrenched power of patriarchy and customary law in Lesotho. But the case still made people think about equality and debate the pros and cons of customary law. And while this was a set-back for women’s rights, the world is changing fast and surely it is only a matter of time before a different bench gives a more progressive ruling – and allows women to be chiefs. And makes it clear that men and women are equal before the law.

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