Tiny African nation leads in equal opportunity, equal rights

Ntlhoi Motsamai – Speaker of the National Assembly

Lesotho sits like pearl in a shell, surrounded by the land mass of South Africa. But this tiny kingdom of 1.8 million people boasts another jewel, which is perhaps astonishing given its size.

Lesotho is ranked eighth in the world by the World Economic Forum when it comes to bridging the gap between the sexes. The reasons are cultural, political and economic, but one explanation keeps being repeated when you probe the gender issue, and it relates to Lesotho’s recent past.

Historically, large numbers of men from Lesotho crossed the border to work in South Africa’s mines, forcing women to step into their shoes and take up school places and jobs. Many of the men have now come back, having been retrenched from the mines, and they face a more female-focused world.

Dr Mphu Ramatlapeng, Lesotho’s minister for health and social affairs, attributes this to the government’s pro-women policies. But more than that, she emphasises Lesotho’s culture of learning. “The defining factor is education. I think a lot of women have realised early on that they have to educate their daughters,” she says.

Primary education is free in Lesotho and literacy rates among women exceed those of men – with 95% of women able to read and write, compared with 83% of men. This is filtering into the jobs market – the chief of police is a woman, so too is the speaker of parliament and there are at least a dozen senior female judges presiding over the country’s courts…

Fifty per cent of Lesotho’s population live in the rural areas. Until recently, customary laws applied in the countryside dictated that women were virtually redundant when it came to making key decisions in the home…

The statistics that put Lesotho at the top table in the equality game may look impressive but they risk glossing over the challenges. There may be less of a gap in health, education and political participation than in many other countries, and clearly there is greater political will to recognise the important role of women in society.

The article walks away from the ideological quotient. Religion is a powerful factor in a society still stuck into peasant lifestyles, rural world view. A contradiction in terms if there ever was one.

The predominant religious force is Christianity. The missionaries who accompanied colonial exploitation did their job well. Fortunately, folks haven’t much of a tendency towards Lord’s Army nutballism. Still, acceptance of the status quo, Christian fatalism, distracts attempts to modernize further.

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