Unity Dow lecture: Education is key to justice for women

March 28, 2012

PORTLAND, Maine – A mother tells her daughter: Behave like a good wife. Obey your husband and sacrifice yourself for your marriage and family.

Another woman dreams that her granddaughter will dance well enough to become one of the king’s many wives.

A family mourns the rape of their teenage daughter, not because of her suffering, but because she will no longer be a suitable bride.

In Botswana and other countries of southern Africa, where Unity Dow grew up, these are scenarios that play out every day. How can young women, particularly in developing countries, aspire to greater achievements in life? How can they become leaders when the people closest to them, out of genuine love, push them toward lives of oppression?

Those were among the tough questions that Dow explored on Tuesday night, as she presented the University of Maine School of Law’s first annual Justice for Women Lecture. Dow is a novelist, lawyer and former judge. She was the first woman to serve on Botswana’s High Court, a post she held from 1998 to 2009, when she decided to return to the private practice of law.

Dow spoke to a crowd of about 400 people at the Abromson Community Education Center on the campus of the University of Southern Maine. The best tool that the global community has to promote justice for women, she said, is education. Educational opportunities give women the strength and base of knowledge to challenge traditional power structures. Dow said she grew up in poverty, and it was her education – at the University of Botswana and Swaziland, and then at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland – that gave her the confidence to stand up for her beliefs.

Dow said she supports the use of quotas in the developing world, to ensure that more women are allowed access to fields including law enforcement and the judiciary. Cultural systems will not change unless women have seats at the tables where the rules are made, Dow said.

“Justice demands footpaths in public spaces that are safe for women,” she said. “It demands communities that do not treat women as if they are perishable goods. It demands schools that do not shortchange girls.”

Dow is one of the world’s foremost advocates for the rights of women and indigenous groups. One landmark case during her tenure on Botswana’s High Court involved a group of Botswana’s Bushmen who won the right to live and hunt on ancestral lands in the Kalahari. The author of four novels and a non-fiction book, Dow published her latest book, “Saturday is for Funerals,” in 2010. The book examines recent successes that Botswana has had in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The University of Maine School of Law, located in Portland, is committed to promoting social justice in Maine and around the world. The Justice for Women Lecture series is an endowed program that will bring speakers to Maine each year to discuss good work and strategies to benefit women and girls.

The Law School established the Justice for Women Lecture series with support from attorney and civic leader Catherine Lee and other donors.

Lee, the founder and manager of Lee International Business Development in Westbrook, has a global practice that focuses on greenhouse gas emissions trading. In her extensive travels, Lee has been impressed with the work being done to eliminate barriers for women and girls. Conversations last year between Lee and Peter Pitegoff, Dean of Maine Law, led to the creation of the lecture series. Lee is the leading financial sponsor and she hopes to expand the series in the future to involve more people and organizations in Maine. Dow’s visit to Portland this week included visits with Law School faculty and students, community leaders, high school students and other groups, including the Mitchell Institute and CIEE, an international exchange organization based in Portland. She also received a key to the City of Portland from recently elected Mayor Michael Brennan.


Media contact: Trevor Maxwell, communications director at Maine Law.
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