Unity Dow, the first woman appointed to Botswana’s High Court, was given the highest honour of an American university, an honorary doctoral degree. Saint Michael’s College of Vermont, in the northeastern New England region of the United States, just south of the Canadian border, awarded Justice Dow a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree, in absentia, at commencement ceremonies on May 17, 2007, on the campus of the liberal arts residential Catholic college, which is located in the Burlington area of Vermont.
The degree citation was read by Justice Dow’s compatriot, Thato Ratsebe, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Saint Michael’s College in 2005 and will earn a master’s degree next year when Justice Dow hopes to be present. Airline cancellations prohibited the justice’s arrival in Vermont in time for this year’s ceremonies. Saint Michael’s President, Marc vander Heyden, conferred the degree upon Justice Dow in absentia.
The citation honouring Justice Dow, read in part:
“Saint Michael’s College is humbled and honoured to have the opportunity to recognize Unity Dow, Botswana’s first female High Court judge. Named to the court in 1998, Justice Dow has a distinguished record as a human rights activist. She was elected to the International Commission of Jurists in 2004 and to the Commission’s executive committee in 2006. It is impossible to overstate the remarkable recognition that is inherent in her being named to the International Commission and then to its executive committee.”
Formerly a prosecutor in the Attorney-General’s office, Justice Dow was also a partner in Botswana’s first all female private law practice. In 1990, Justice Dow founded the Metlhaetsile Women’s Information Centre. As its Director from 1994 to 1998, she championed the human rights of women and children. Subsequently, Justice Dow was the coordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Project and engaged in a six-country regional study of human rights of women. She was also the plaintiff in a ground-breaking legal case in which Botswana’s nationality law was overturned, thereby propelling the passage of legislation through which women were enabled to pass on their nationality to their children. In 2006, she presided over one of Botswana’s most widely publicized cases in which a group of Bushmen won the right to keep the land of their ancestors in the Kalahari.
Botswana’s most famous judge, Unity Dow, felt nevertheless that she had time and inclination to write fiction, and so she produced four novels in six years, each one received with wide acclaim. Her latest work, The Heavens May Fall, draws on her experiences as a High Court judgeÔÇöindeed the title comes from the quasi-legal concept, “Let justice be done and the heavens may fall.” Undaunted by the challenges of legal cases that pit customary law with an evolving legal system, Dow presents heart-rending cases in her fiction of abuse and injustice surrounding the lives of women and children. Yet she insists on the rights of all parties, the necessity “to hear the other side.”
Justice Dow, who grew up in Mochudi, is known for her ability to tackle difficult issues, delineate the forces involved, and make just decisions. Her mother, a seamstress, was only minimally literate, her father was more literate, but not sufficiently to inspire anyone to read or write, Dow said. Yet she was not allowed to skip school. She said her family of seven, except for her youngest brother, all have university degrees, and she added, “This is very peculiar for where I come from.” Her fiction reflects her mental toughness, her own life, and the clarity of vision and championing of truth that she manifests as a judge. Justice Dow studied law at the University of Botswana and Swaziland, with two years at Edinburgh University, Scotland.