Second Class Citizens: Discrimination Against Women Under Botswana’s Citizenship Act

Published: 1/Sep/1994
Source: Human Rights Watch


Human Rights Watch is concerned that the government of Botswana is continuing to enforce provisions of the Botswana Citizenship Act that discriminate on the basis of sex, in defiance of a 1992 Botswana Court of Appeal decision holding those provisions unconstitutional and contrary to international human rights standards. The enforcement of the Act perpetuates discrimination on the basis of sex and undermines the authority of Botswana’s highest court.

In 1990, Unity Dow, a citizen of Botswana, initiated a legal challenge to the constitutionality of sections 4, 5, 6, and 12 of the Botswana Citizenship Act. Her challenge rested on the claim that sections 4 and 5 of the Act were discriminatory and unconstitutional because they deny Batswana women married to foreign men the right to pass citizenship on to their children. Such children can only remain in Botswana if they are granted a residence permit. In contrast, Batswana men married to foreign women automatically pass citizenship to their children. Sections 6 and 12 were similarly discriminatory on grounds of sex in relation to adopted children and the residency requirements for naturalization.

The High Court declared sections 4 and 5 of the Act discriminatory and unconstitutional. The Botswana government appealed this decision, arguing that discrimination on the grounds of sex must be permitted in Botswana society as the society is patrilineal and therefore male oriented. The appellant accepts that the citizenship act is discriminatory but this was intentionally made so in order to preserve the male orientation of Botswana society.

In a June 11, 1992 decision, the Court of Appeal, Botswana’s highest court, found that section 4 of the Act is unconstitutional and inconsistent with international human rights standards. The Court did not decide on other sections of the Act because it ruled that Unity Dow lacked legal standing to raise the issues. Yet, more than two years later the government has taken no substantial action to comply with the Court’s decision. Instead, it has continued to enforce the Citizenship Act. Subsequent to the decision of the Court of Appeal, Unity Dow and several other women who are similarly situated have applied for citizenship for their children as recently as March of 1994. The Botswana government has rejected Dow’s application, and ignored the others. In addition, immigration authorities continue to prevent Batswana women married to foreign men from traveling in and out of the country with their children because the children are denied citizenship under section 4 of the Citizenship Act.

The government’s defiance of the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Unity Dow case has greater implications for the rights of women in Botswana and for the protection and promotion of human rights in general. In particular, the government’s refusal to abolish such sex discrimination which, as ruled by the highest court in the country, is clearly prohibited by the Constitution, reflects a determination to perpetuate Batswana women’s status as second class citizens. This refusal also signifies blatant disregard of the fundamental principles of the rule of law and independence of the judiciary in a democratic society.

The government seeks to justify its defiance of the Court of Appeal on the grounds of respect for national customs and tradition. Respect for traditions and customs should not be all owed to override the constitutional guarantees and international obligations into which Botswana has freely entered. Human Rights Watch urges the government of Botswana to immediately implement legislative, administrative, educational and other measures to resolve any perceived conflict between local custom and international human rights norms in order to uphold the rule of law and the principles of non-discrimination and equal protection of the rights of women. In particular, we call on Botswana to bring its administrative practices in line with the decision of the Botswana Court of Appeal, to amend other sex discriminatory sections of the Citizenship Act, and to consider other sex discriminatory legislation currently in operation in Botswana with a view to amendment.

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Themes: Acquisition of nationality, Acquisition by children, Discrimination, Gender, Naturalisation and Marriage
Regions: Botswana
Year: 1994