Women Hope for Autonomy

In Lesotho, Women Hope for Control of their Lives over AIDS, Sexism

Chicago Tribune

MASERU, Lesotho - (KRT) - Mpeo Mahase is a lawyer, a member of Parliament and Lesotho's assistant minister of justice. But when she wants to take out a loan, she needs her husband's permission.
RM: Way out! Relatively, we have a good number of lady ministers. This is a perfect example of culture over reason. It happens all the time, and it is usually wrong.

She also must get his approval to open a bank account, have surgery, take contraceptives or run for public office. She cannot own or inherit property, is barred from running a company and, until recently, had no legal power to refuse sexual relations.
RM: Sometimes the woman, wife, mother, may even call her spouse 'father.' Language, in this case, speaks volumes, because in Sesotho it is extremely important to call or refer to someone appropriately. Any man old enough to be my father is 'Father so and so,' and so on.

In Lesotho, men own women - even parliamentarians.
RM: Ouch! But true enough.

"A woman is the child of her father, her husband and her son," goes an old saying in Sesotho, the nation's traditional language. That is the way things have been for centuries in this tradition-bound mountain kingdom of 2 million people surrounded by South Africa.
RM: Two and a half million. AIDS has taken its toll, but there are still that many of us.

Lately, however, Lesotho's traditional male dominance has begun exacting a huge social price. Half of the nation's young women carry the AIDS virus, largely as a result of their inability to refuse unwanted sex, according to human-rights and humanitarian organizations. AIDS deaths have left one child in 10 an orphan. Unemployment tops 40 percent, in part because women struggle to get loans and open businesses. Half of the nation lives below the poverty line.
Yes, it does. What can we do about it?

Things have gotten so bad Lesotho is considering a landmark "equality in marriage" bill that would for the first time give women control of property, inheritance and their bodies.
RM: There goes men's monopoly on power, and there comes Lesotho's salvation. Women have already been running the show, but in the background, and always with the spectre of their spouse's veto hanging above their heads.

"I think women should be on an equal basis, and I think that feeling is growing," said Mahase, one of 15 women in Lesotho's 120-seat National Assembly, the Parliament's lower house. "When you empower women, you empower the nation. Without change, our future is non-existent."
RM: Alleluia!

Rethinking the role of women is one of the challenges Africa faces at the start of a new century. Across the continent, men hold most of the political, economic and social power, and traditional female subservience is limiting opportunities for economic and social progress.
RM: Men play and drink. That's what they traditionally do. Their unspoken excuse is that they're both warriors--protectors of the household--and bread-winners. It's a load of rubbish. Women till the land and protect the family. There are no more male-warriors in Lesotho.


The continent's inequality between the sexes is perhaps most evident in its AIDS crisis. Young women are two to four times more likely than young men to become infected with HIV, according to the United Nations. Male promiscuity remains socially acceptable across much of the continent, and women have little power to refuse sex or demand condom use. A recent study by the South African Medical Research Council found the only risk factor for 60 percent to 80 percent of infected women in southern Africa was sleeping with their husbands.
RM: Read this.

"Women and girls in Africa are dying by the millions, partly because their second-class status makes them vulnerable to violence and unsafe sex," said Joanne Csete, head of AIDS issues at Human Rights Watch in New York.
RM: Read this.

Many African countries, including Lesotho, have ratified international treaties that give women equal rights. But putting those protections into effect has been another matter.

In Ha Leqele, Lesotho, 18-year-old Mamokete Masupha is raising her young daughter alone in a house left to her and her brother by their parents, who died of AIDS.

Masupha dropped out of school to care for her parents in their last years, while her older brother moved away to attend technical college. But under Lesotho inheritance law, the house is his, and "he can throw me out anytime he wants," she said.

Nearby lives Mapoello Leqele, whose brother-in-law tried to seize her house after her husband died last year. The courts eventually upheld her claim to the property, but only because she had no son to inherit it.

"Women are very vulnerable here," she said. "We should be given rights. Some of tradition is bad and it should go."

Just a few doors away, Limakatso Senatlana, 16, spends her days with her dying mother in a dark house, empty except for her mother's bed and a few clothes and pots. Like Masupha, she had to quit school, and now "this is all I do," she said, sitting by her mother's AIDS-withered body, covered in blankets.

"I miss being a kid," she said quietly. Her mother, a widow, wipes away tears.

Orphaned girls in Lesotho are frequent victims of rape or succumb to sexual invitations in exchange for money they need to survive. Senatlana insisted she has resisted the pressures.

"I don't want to have a boyfriend. I don't even like them," she whispered, staring at a wall.

But neighbors tell a different story. At night, when her mother sleeps, they say, the girl with the round face has begun catching a taxi, to work as a prostitute in Maseru.

"Women and girls are the ones who face most of the problems. They're vulnerable in so many ways," said Itumeleng Kimane, a sociology professor and member of the Lesotho Law Reform Commission.

The commission, charged with revising the country's colonial-era laws, already has achieved one important victory for women: the new Sexual Offenses Act, passed last year.

The act, a response to widespread rape and the country's burgeoning AIDS crisis, for the first time sets stiff penalties for rape, incest and other offenses, including offering children favors for sex.

Under the new law, rapists must take an HIV test, and men who rape while knowingly HIV-positive can face the death penalty. Other rapists, who once got suspended sentences or a few months in jail, now face a minimum sentence of 10 years. A new unit has been set up within the Lesotho police force to take complaints of violence against women and children.


The Law Reform Commission's proposed "equality in marriage" bill, however, has been more controversial - and much slower to move toward becoming law. Written in 2000, it is awaiting Cabinet approval before it can be brought to the legislature for a vote. Each time proponents press it forward they are met with Cabinet demands for more studies and papers on the law's advisability, Kimane said.

Lesotho's men are particularly reluctant to cede power to women, Kimane believes, because they feel more economically and socially vulnerable than their fathers. Lesotho men have for generations gone to South Africa's mines to work, sending money home to their wives. But in the last decade, as mines have closed, thousands have lost their jobs.

That has led to growing violence as men, now stuck at home and unable to find other work, take out frustrations on their wives and children. Women in many families have become the breadwinners, taking low-paying jobs as maids or at the country's new textile factories.

While many turn their paychecks over to their husbands, others rebel, demanding the family's few spare cents go to pencils for the kids rather than cigarettes.

The male-dominated Cabinet and legislature "hear us, but they have never felt what it is to be confronted with these problems," said the professor, who recently needed her husband's signature when she sought a loan from National University of Lesotho, where she works. In Lesotho, "the laws have been made by men, for men, to create opportunities for themselves," she said.

"Men feel they are losing power. They are losing control and they will do anything to maintain the status quo," she said.

Women, brought up to obey and defer to fathers, uncles and brothers, are also part of the problem.
RM: How true! I know more than a handful of women who have given themselves up to the system. They shouldn't, because today's men in Lesotho aren't worth the reputation they're riding on. Most are ready to turn around and bolt, should the women show even a little spunk. He beats you up? Let him, then promise him that next time he does it, he better kill you, because if not o tla mo faola (you'll castrate him). That should work.

"We grow into women who feel we have to be subordinate all the time. Society doesn't encourage us to take leading roles in anything," Kimane said. "There's a widespread feeling we're not capable of making decisions. We grow up with this and internalize it."

That has made efforts to change traditional views, particularly in rural areas, an ongoing struggle. Mamokete Hlaele, who trains HIV peer educators for CARE in the Lesotho town of Maputsoe, says women, fearful of losing their husbands, often hush up incest against their own daughters and rarely report beatings, rape or other violence.

"We are trying to be liberated, but it is not easy," she said. Still, more and more women are speaking out. Clementine Nkofo, 46, a Ha Leqele woman with AIDS, lays out her case for women's rights even as her husband, Sejamonna, an unemployed miner, lurks stone-faced in a corner of the living room.

"Women have problem-solving skills. If we could just be given some control of our lives, things would change," she said. "We need men to understand the hardships women face. We need men to change."
RM: Change them.

Some change is under way. Lesotho's Parliament agreed this year to set aside a third of local government seats for women starting with elections next March, despite criticism the quotas are unconstitutional. Some Maseru shops quietly offer women credit they cannot get at the banks.

And at the school Kimane's daughter attends, students recently participated in a debate on whether women need men. The girls argued they did not, and won. Even Kimane found it a bit unsettling.

"I watched the girls look the boys in the face, and I felt for the boys," she admitted. "They need to find a way to become different from their fathers."
RM: If their girlfriends don't do anything, those boys are going to end up just like their fathers. It is the girls who must take matters into their hands (pun intended) and demand respect. You girls are better educated, anyway. You need to go further, in order to be fully autonomous, and to gain as much leverage as possible.


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* The red bits (RM) are my comments, not Laurie Goering's
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