Promoting equality in the mountain kingdom

Christine O’Byrne explains work she is doing to promote equality in Lesotho.

A man walks towards me with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders to ward off the cold.  A taxi drives past, the driver beeping the horn to see if I want a lift.  A string of people call to me “Hello! How are you?” because I am white.  That is my walk to work in Lesotho.

I am in the ‘mountain kingdom’ as part of the International Learning Opportunity (ILO) programme delivered by Academi Wales. The Welsh Government has committed to playing a part in the delivery of the Millennium Development Goals which seek to reduce a range of inequalities and increase prosperity in the developing world.  Through the ILO programme, Wales provides expertise to organisations in Africa, sending professionals to share skills and experience.

There are a number of similarities between Wales and Lesotho such as a focus on building the economy and creating jobs.  The landscape is also similar with a high number of people living in rural communities.  On the other hand, poverty and inequality in Lesotho are severe with something like 40% of the population living in absolute poverty, struggling to survive on less than $1.25 a day.  Unemployment is high at 24% and there are many qualified people unable to find work.  Disease continues to blight the nation with TB and HIV/AIDS a constant threat.  A patriarchal culture and myths about cures for HIV lead to a high level of sexual attacks on women and girls which can be devastating within this context.

I am currently working with the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) to develop a strategic plan.  FIDA promotes and protects the rights of women and children by making communities more aware of the law whilst campaigning for further legal reform.  The idea that women can be equal to men is a new one in Lesotho, especially in the rural areas where communities continue to hold very traditional values.  FIDA currently delivers programmes of education and sensitisation to increase knowledge of rights and responsibilities under the law.

Some of the main areas for action are property and inheritance rights, domestic abuse and women’s empowerment.  Women were considered minor until fairly recently and so discrimination against women is still common.  As an example, inheritance laws discriminate against women and girls which leads to situations of ‘property grabbing’ where they are forced from their homes following the death of the patriarch.  FIDA lobbies for change to legislation to protect women and children in situations such as this and also offers litigation services to women who want to fight to reclaim their land.

Whilst Lesotho is on track to achieve targets set for gender equality, there remains a lot of work to do.  I hope that by the end of my time here, we will have worked together to develop a plan that will help them to continue making progress over the next five years, moving towards a nation where women and men are equal under the law and children are protected.

As I head home, my walk is much the same except this time I am able to enjoy the incredible African sunset which covers the plains in a blanket of burnt orange as it goes to sleep amidst the mountains.

Christine O'Byrne is currently taking part in an international learning opportunity in Lesotho. In Wales, she is the Policy and Research lead for Chwarae Teg.

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