The sub-Saharan African nation of Botswana has issued a landmark high court ruling that vastly expands the rights of women to inherit after the death of their parents. One of the fastest-developing nations in the world, Botswana's change in legal policy comes on the heels of many other political reforms that have brought women closer to true political and economic equality.
The case began five years ago. Edith Mmusi and her three sisters all lived on a family homestead 50 miles south of the Botswanan capital of Gaborone. However, the son of an older half-brother stood to inherit the house under existing laws in the nation. The sisters sued, claiming that because they had contributed to the upkeep and maintenance of the homestead, they had a legal right to inherit it.
Section 3 of Botswana's constitution makes it clear that men and women are to be treated equally under the law, but the actual situation for women there is significantly more complicated. While women living in urban centers are typically governed by the laws set out in the Botswanan Constitution, women who live in rural areas are governed by traditional legal systems that often use older tribal laws to distribute property.
For many women in Botswana, the ruling is a very welcome step in the direction of full equality in rural areas. When women's husbands or parents died, they were very likely to become destitute if they did not have children or others to support them.
Progressive Botswanan judge Key Dingake delivered the decision in the case, which struck a blow to male Botswanans hoping to preserve the traditional methods of inheritance brought from tribal cultures. The Attorney General of Botswana had spoken in favor of traditional inheritance laws. According to the Attorney General, while the law was clearly discriminatory in theory and in practice, Botswana was not ready to move forward so quickly on gender equality issues.
Dingake said that Botswanan judges need to “assume the role of the judicial midwife and assist in the birth of a new world struggling to be born.” Dingake's viewpoints echo some of the more liberal arguments about jurisprudence in the United States—he views the constitution there as a living document which should become more expansive as societal norms adapt and change with new political pressures and enfranchised groups.
79 year old Mmusi and her sisters, who would have faced eviction and destitution had they been forced to leave their family home, were excited by the ruling. “Tonight I will sleep like a baby,” she said after hearing what the judge had to say.
Botswana has already had major success in creating equal opportunities for women, and has been able to put women into some of the highest levels of government. The nation has a more stable government than nearly any other in sub-Saharan Africa, and its progress on women's issues is viewed as a favorable sign not only for Botswana but for southern Africa as a whole.
Sources: bbc.co.uk, mmegi.bw