Sadly, discriminatory policies exist in many places that claim to be democracies. Fortunately, one country in Africa recently did something about one such policy. The High Court of Botswana should be praised for taking a stand on gender equality, and we can only hope that other countries with official or accepted policies that subjugate women will reverse their positions as well.
Traditional customs, in place for generations, required property ownership to pass down through male heirs only — and it has been suggested that the government is reluctant to challenge the authority of local leaders in some areas for fear of inciting civil unrest. In 2007 a group of sisters in Botswana challenged the inheritance law in court. After a five year struggle that consisted of several decisions against them by lower courts and some members of government, this month a judge in the High Court ruled in their favor. Judge Key Dingake determined that to deny the sisters the right to inherit property would be a violation of Botswana’s constitution, which guarantees equal rights for women as men under the law. “Discrimination against gender has no place in our modern day society,” Dingake announced, adding that the government should examine all discriminatory laws still in effect.
For the first time ever, women in Botswana can legally inherit property (assuming, of course, that the ruling holds up and is enforced; for now it is a landmark decision nonetheless). Human rights and advocacy groups hailed the judge’s ruling and hoped it would send a message to other countries in the region with similar policies. Just about the only person who didn’t like it was the sisters’ nephew who would have inherited their home under traditional law. “This is a sad day for me… People should learn to respect our culture,” he said.
Indeed cultural customs and beliefs ought to be respected. But a line must be drawn when those customs result in discrimination or harm against a group of people. Maybe when the policy of male inheritance was created it was generally accepted that women were ill equipped to own property- even our Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal.” This is no longer the case. Cultures are worth preserving, but they must also reflect the social developments of the current age. If women can be presidents of African countries (there are 2 now; I profiled Joyce Banda of Malawi here), they should certainly be able to inherit property.
All people of Botswana should benefit from this decision. Maybe it will help others realize that all people are created equal, and should be so enshrined in laws.