Senate Masupha’s struggle for equality

On Thursday, Lesotho’s Constitutional Court found that Senate Masupha can’t be a chief because she is someone’s daughter. In so doing, the Court demonstrated how `women’s empowerment’ can be used to deny women power and equality.

Senate Masupha’s father, David Masupha, was a chief. David Masupha died, and his wife, Senate’s mother, ‘Masenate, became chief.  Senate Masupha is the first-born child of David and ‘Masenate Masupha. ‘Masenate Masupha died. Senate claimed the chieftaincy, and the situation thickened. Brothers jumped in and claimed that Basotho tradition precluded the daughter from assuming the chieftaincy. Senate replied that this was both nonsense and a violation of her constitutionally guaranteed rights.

And so Senate Masupha challenged the constitutionality of the exclusion of women from chieftaincy.

On Thursday, the brothers won. So did the fathers, uncles, sons, male cousins, male friends and acquaintances and male strangers. Women lost, or at least suffered a temporary setback.

According to many reports, Lesotho has made strides to correct gender inequality and inequity. According to some, Lesotho ranks better than the United States and the United Kingdom on gender equality. 95% of women are literate. Women predominate in the job sector, seem to have ample and rising representation in the highest levels of government. In recent years, Lesotho abolished marital power. So, things are on the move.

But movement goes in both and all directions. The judge decided that Senate Masupha had no case because her mother had been able to assume the chieftaincy. Therefore, since the mother was a woman, women were not discriminated against. Too bad for those women who are daughters.

But really, it’s ok, because women are `empowered’, according to the court judgment: “It is … to be noted that Lesotho has performed well internationally in the campaign for gender equality. It has 58% women in local government, which is more than the 50% requirement. It has also surpassed the initial 30% target for women in decision-making bodies set by SADC. It is ranked number 40 globally in compliance. Our judiciary is also suitably representative in both the Magistrates Court and the High Court…If it could be argued that Lesotho is in fact lagging behind in its policies of equality between the sexes, that may be a fair comment; but it has equally not abolished the death sentence on the basis of the right to life; neither does this country consider itself bound by the principles of the rights of gay people to the extent of allowing same sex marriages. Many countries in the world have not yet developed to that stage. This is not unique at all. It may be that the time will soon come to allow these developments and accede to those principles as well, but the customs, culture and conceptions of the community must always be considered and each country must be allowed to make its choices in this respect. This is the true meaning of independence and self-determination of nations. It is the role of the other two arms of Government to see that is done without breaching the law.”

First, Lesotho is empowering `women’ and so the woman Senate Masupha must simply wait to become one of those `women.’ Second, Lesotho may be behind on equality of the sexes, but it’s also behind on capital punishment and on LGBTI rights, and so it’s all… good? Third, this is what independence and self-determination looks like. You can just about hear the demonstrators in the streets, chanting, “This is what independence looks like! This is what self-determination looks like! Whose streets? Our streets … except, of course, for our daughters.”

The three-strikes policy here is clear. Lesotho has hit the gender and sexual tipping point. Women are sort of equal, and so can’t be discriminated against. What’s good for the mothers will have to do for the daughters.

On the one hand, this is a matter of jurisprudence in one small mountain kingdom. Senate Masupha will appeal, and contemporary African history is on her side. In recent years, courts in South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania have all faced similar cases, and have all decided to strike down prohibitions against women becoming chiefs and against women being able to inherit. Lesotho has temporarily chosen another path.

On the other hand, the judgment is a lesson in the pitfalls of development-speak. Metrics of equality that measure this country’s gender gap against that country’s miss the core aspect of equality. Equality is absolute. Either women and men are equal or they are not. That’s it. There are no gradations. There are no qualifications that have the mothers equal but the daughters not. The judge’s decision was not echoing some traditional Basotho `culture’. To the contrary, the judge was invoking precisely the terms of international and global assessment.

Women’s `empowerment’ without the absolute of gender and sexual equality is nothing more and nothing less than an alibi. Ask Senate Masupha, ask Tabitha Phaloane who suffered a similar fate. The struggle continues.


(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian / PK)

Baring the brunt

September, the song was, “Women hold up half the sky.” By the look of news reports this week, October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the tune might well be “Women and children bear the brunt”. From households and intimate relations to the armed forces to global poverty, women bear the brunt, children bear the brunt. This is not good news.

The new song began last Friday, with an article that centered on LeAnna M. Washington, Pennsylvania State Senator from the 4th District, which covers part of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Senator Washington’s official Senate biography reports, “Washington has triumphed over many personal challenges in her life. She was a high school dropout, teen parent, and victim of domestic violence early in her marriage. Her tenacity, perseverance and faith in God allowed her to transform victimhood to victory. Washington, who earned a Master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University said of the road she has traveled: “I will go where there is no path and I will leave a trail for others to follow.””

In Friday’s article, Senator Washington is described as having been married at 18, and then living with the big secret of domestic violence, of spousal abuse. She is described as one of `many black women across the country….It’s about absorbing the reality that close to five in every 1,000 black women aged 12 and up are victims of domestic violence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s understanding that among those abused aged 15 to 34, murder by a husband or boyfriend remains a leading cause of death. More importantly, it’s about actively working on changing those outcomes….Verbal, sexual and physical abuse are forms familiar to a large swath of black females. Historically so…. These are the scars of slavery, lack of education, discrimination, unemployment and other frustrations that have been exacerbated among African-Americans. Poverty tends to be an indicator for abuse, though violence is not confined to one social class. The difference is having options and resources to escape – options not always afforded by those struggling to survive day-to-day. Feeling trapped leads many women to stay put – and in peril.”

The article is titled “Black women bear the brunt of domestic violence,” and it appeared in blackamericaweb. In every community, women bear the brunt of domestic violence. In every community, the language of that particular brunt, of that bearing, is silence.

And those communities are not only defined by race and ethne. For example, on Thursday we `learned’ that in the U.S. military “lesbians bear brunt of military discharges….Every military branch dismissed a disproportionate number of women in 2008 under the policy banning openly gay service members. But the discrepancy was particularly marked in the Air Force, where women were a majority of those let go under the policy, even though they made up only 20 percent of personnel.”

On the same day, Thursday, it was reported that in Lesotho, “children bear the brunt of the deepening economic crisis…”Adult frustration” translated into a grim reality of child abuse, violence, neglect and exploitation, with thousands left to fend for themselves, excluded from crucial services such as hospitals and schools.” The next day, the Africa Child Policy Forum sent out a press release, announcing a new publication, Child Poverty: African and International Perspectives. Here’s what they said in the release: “Poor children to bear the brunt of global economic crisis. New book looks at the brutal reality of child poverty….The book also includes analysis of the impact of the current financial crises on child poverty in the face of increased estimates of the actual number of newly poor and reduced economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa estimated to be down to 3.5 percent – implying a 7 percent increase in poverty in Africa, of which children will bear a huge brunt.”

From one community to another, what exactly is meant by “bearing the brunt”, and why is it always women and children who are endowed with that particular role and capacity? Can community exist without women and children bearing a, or the, brunt? A brunt is “An assault, charge, onset, violent attack….The shock, violence, or force (of an attack)…. The chief stress or violence; crisis.” To bear can mean so many things, from carry to bring forth fruit or offspring, but when it comes to bearing the brunt, it means “to suffer without succumbing, to sustain without giving way, to endure.” Bearing the brunt as an acceptable facet of everyday life, as an acceptable `neutral’ phrase, is a perversion of any vision of sustainability as articulated with wellbeing.

Domestic Violence Awareness must transform the language and the logic of the brunt. It’s time to stop talking about bearing the brunt and start talking and acting on baring the brunt. What is the attack, who and what are the assailants, what is the violence, the force, the stress, the crisis? All must be addressed as part of the same question and part of the same solution. And it begins and ends with women, not majestically holding up half the sky but rather ordinarily and daily populating and sustaining all the daily world. Bare the brunt now, today, and always.

(Photo credit: Precious Jones in NCKU)