In a landmark ruling Botswana’s High Court in Gaborone on Friday gave women inheritance rights for the first time, up-ending a male-dominated system that had prevailed in the thriving African nation.
Announcing the ruling, Justice Key Dingake said “it seems to me that the time has now arisen for the justices of this court to assume the role of the judicial midwife and assist in the birth of a new world struggling to be born.”
The court had been hearing a case brought by three sisters aged over 65, whose claim to family property is being challenged by their nephew.
The court ruled that a tribal law, giving the youngest-born son rights to inherit the family home was not in line with the country’s constitution, which guarantees gender equality.
According to Tswana custom the family home is either inherited by the first-born or last-born son, depending on tribe.
Two of the women were in court to greet the ruling with cheers and broad smiles.
“Tonight I will sleep like a baby!” declared 79-year-old plaintiff Edith Mmusi.
While there was jubilation from the applicants, their lawyer and sympathizers, the defendant Molefi Ramantele said the court had undermined the country’s culture.
“This is a sad day for me, I am saddened by this ruling. People should learn to respect our culture,” he said.
The government’s attorney general and lower courts had opposed the case on the grounds of “Botswana being a culturally inclined nation” and scrapping customary inheritance laws was not in line with the “public mood.”
But Friday’s judgment was welcomed by advocacy groups, who declared it a victory for a region where women are too often treated as second class citizens.
According to advocacy group Social Watch, sub-Saharan Africa is among the world’s most inequitable regions.
While the gender gap in Botswana is narrower than the global average, activists say significant legal, economic and cultural hurdles remain.
“We are celebrating victory of women, this is the best judgment ever,” said Priti Patel, deputy director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.
“This is a significant step forward for women’s rights not only in Botswana but in the southern Africa region, where many countries are addressing similar discriminatory laws.”