PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman High Court Judge (Botswana)
By Lyric Burnett
On April 23rd, 1959, parents Moses and Ellen Diswai gave birth to their second child Unity Dow, in the rural city of Mochudi, Botswana. During this time, Botswana was an extremely patriarchal country under strict traditional values. Although Unity’s life would soon result in progressive changes as she got older, it was common for countries at the time to heavily enforce a patriarchal system, due to the submissiveness in a woman’s role. Despite the traditionalistic views of the country, Dow’s parents did not succumb to these roles when it came to their parenting. Moses was a strong man who worked outside the home, while Ellen was a housewife who never assigned her children chores based on gender, which Unity states greatly shaped her as she never grew up thinking there was anything, she was unable to do because of her gender.
Unity Dow credits her childhood for inspiring her to want to challenge stereotypes placed on men and women all around the world. Outside of her parent’s progressive parenting, Dow was born into a low-resourced country, where there were no tar roads or telephones. She did not see her first refrigerator until she was a teenager, and she had to hold water and firewood on her head. However, growing up in a technology absent country was not a detriment for Unity Dow. Instead, it influenced her to become extremely invested in books. According to her dad, Dow was an inquisitive child who loved reading. They would fetch water a great distance and Unity carried a book to read each time. Without even realizing it at the time, Dow’s childhood life rooted her into becoming a renowned activist, author, lawyer, and the first female high court judge of Botswana.
Amidst poor living capabilities, Unity Dow found she was able to excel in school. When she began school, it was during a time where education still was not free. This forced her parents to pay for her schooling despite their low resources. Eventually, around 1971, diamonds were discovered in Botswana, mining began in 1972, and the country was beginning to see the results of this discovery. Dow’s high achievements in school were not only acknowledged by her parents, but also by her teachers. In particular, Dow recognizes one of her teachers, Joan Backley, for being instrumental in pushing her to pursue a law career. Dow and her family knew very little about lawyers and had never seen or met one. Her teacher presented her with the suggestion to pursue this career path, which was met by her father’s uncertainty of whether Backley was presenting a promising job.4 Despite hesitations, Dow decided to take her teacher's advice. After high school, Dow was awarded a scholarship to study law at the University of Botswana in Swaziland, a neighboring African country, in 1983. The scholarship also included leaving Africa for the first time and studying at the Edinburg University for two years as well.
Once going abroad and transferring to Edinburg University, Dow found herself one of the very few women enrolled. She exclaimed how at first, she felt like she was a part of an exclusive club, however, very quickly she began to realize the unfair gender inequality written within the law. Dow stated how when you start to practice you realize how just the language of the law is so male, the culture of the law is so male and you begin to think “I don’t think it should be like this, I have a right to be here, and I’ve earned the right to be here and therefore this whole environment should be about me as well.” This discovery catapulted Dow’s relentlessness to excel as a female lawyer and tackle injustices in the system.
After her studies, Dow earned a job at the Attorney General’s chambers in Botswana. Although this was a great job to possess coming out of law school, after only three years (1983-1986), Dow moved on to start her own law firm. As her career was progressing, so was her family life. Unity Dow, a Botswana citizen, married Peace Corps volunteer Peter Dow, a US citizen, and together they raised three children. One from a previous relationship, and two from this marriage. The complexities of Dow’s family resulted in her challenging the Botswana government in a case that ultimately ignited her career and shot up her reputation. In 1982, the government passed the Citizenship Act, a new law preventing women like Unity, who were married to a non-Botswana, from passing on citizenship to their offspring. Dow challenged the law as discriminatory, alleging that the act renders her children aliens in their home country and land of birth. She voiced that this discriminatory treatment relegated women’s legal status to that of their children and violated a provision of the constitution that states that every person in Botswana is entitled to fundamental rights and freedoms, regardless of race, place of origin, color, creed, or sex.
After five years and an excruciating amount of media coverage for not just Dow, but her family as well, she won the case on the basis of the law being discriminatory and degrading. In an extremely patriarchal country, this win spoke volumes for all women in Botswana. In 1997, after taking a couple of years away from the media, Unity Dow prepared to make history once again. The Chief Justice of Botswana offered her the opportunity to become the first female high court judge of Botswana. At the time, with the exception of two, the judges were male, and with the exception of two, the others were white. After taking some time to decide on whether to accept this opportunity, Dow agreed. As a judge, Dow was never afraid to take on the same government she was serving, she remained very progressive, ruling against the government when they were wrong, and creating the reputation of a judge who stood up for justice.
Unity Dow has made many contributions to the law. This was the case whether she was proving the Citizenship Act unconstitutional, ruling against the Botswana government in 2002 when the people of Kalahari took them to court, or even ruling in favor of the Basarwa people stating that they have the right to stay and hunt in their areas. As a judge, Dow worked rigorously on fixing human rights. However, she did not stop there. After serving as a judge for 11 years, Dow moved into politics where she vied for the Member of the Parliament seat in Mochudi District, but unfortunately, she lost. Yet, in 2014, Dow was officially elected as a Member of Parliament, appointed as Assistant Minister of Education, and has published five books.
After immense research, it is my finding that Unity Dow is a pioneer in her field because she never conformed to the injustices in her country. She did not allow sexist roles to influence how she learned and lived her life. Although she grew up in an underdeveloped patriarchal country, she discovered the complexities of life, she traveled, read, researched, and then expressed any heinous discriminatory acts, and fought hard to fix them. Before Unity Dow became the first female judge in Botswana, she had already made history with the Citizenship Act. Dow is a pioneer because she does not sit back and wait for someone else to handle matters; instead, if she noticed something not just, she has and continues to make it her sole responsibility to resolve it. That alone is admirable.