LESOTHO: Women's lib not quite there yet

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A year after Lesotho's parliament granted women equal status, few are aware of the legal changes this could bring about in their lives.

The new Married Persons Equality Act not only overturned the requirement that women obtain sponsorship from a male relative to acquire property, but husbands must now obtain their wives' permission to acquire property or borrow money from the bank.

"Now I know you are joking," laughed a disbelieving Puleng Latela, who lives in Matsieng hamlet, an hour's drive from the capital, Maseru.

People said they had more immediate concerns, like unemployment, HIV and AIDS, and the drought-induced food shortages - the three components of the humanitarian crisis bedevilling the small country.

"Since it is a new Act, it is now being disseminated, and people are being educated about it," said Motselisi Mdeno, a national programme officer of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). "We are making copies in the local language. Everyone affected by it must know about it, which is every man and woman, married or unmarried."

UNFPA assisted in preparing the Act by providing technical support, legal advice and finance. "In a nutshell, the [new] law addresses the basic economic inequalities between married men and women. Women couldn't get loans, whether they were married or not; unmarried women needed a male relative's consent - father, brother, uncle - and wives needed husbands' consent. Now, men need the wife's consent to acquire property or take out loans."

Preliminary data from the latest national census, released in August, found fewer men than women in Lesotho's population of 1,880,661 - there were 916,282 men (48.7 percent), compared to 964,379 women (51.3 percent).

Although the nation's average lifespan has been radically reduced by AIDS, women generally live longer (36.2 years) than men (34 years), according to the UNDP Human Development Report 2006, which also notes that in combined primary, secondary and tertiary education enrolment, female students (66 percent) marginally outnumber male students (65 percent).

However, men earn almost double - an average salary of $3,506 per annum - compared to the average $1,848 per year that women are paid. Women hold 17 percent of the seats in parliament.

Changing is difficult

The Marriage Act originated with Lesotho's acceptance of international accords committing the country to gender and economic equality. But it is difficult to bring about change overnight in a patriarchal society that has had stringent traditional gender roles for generations.

"The people of the Kingdom of Lesotho are socially conservative: I would say most men would like to retain their traditional power, and some women may feel they are given [by the Marriage Act] a power that does not belong to them, but rightfully belongs to their husbands," said social welfare worker Joyce Modise.

"On the other hand we find there are women who feel happy and liberated that they now have the power to make decisions along with their husbands."

UNFPA's Mdeno said, "Men have always been in power; they may feel that that power has been taken away. Women, on the other hand, will be excited - they will [now] have a part in the decisions of their family."

Modise commented that the reluctance of African women to accept an equal footing was natural, as "there is the reality on the ground to contend with. We call it 'educating' people about their rights, but it is more than that. A great social adjustment has to be made; people's minds have to be changed."

Such change can be emotional, and can lead to turbulence in a household if not handled sensitively. "A smart woman will not say to her husband 'You will be arrested if you break the Marriage Act', because that's not what happens, and it will only anger him and reinforce his resistance," said Modise.

"A smart woman will say, 'You took me as your life partner when we started this marriage. We must discuss the things that are part of our lives, like the house and property and taking out loans, because if we don't both agree, the Marriage Act says there will be no loan or new property.'"

Source: IRIN
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