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Meet Senate Masupha, the woman challenging Lesotho’s sexist chieftain laws

Laws that prohibit women from inheriting the role of chief have been invalidated in South Africa and Namibia, but not in Lesotho. Senate Masupha is fighting for her right to wield the title hitherto held only by men.



Senate Masupha, who hails from the village of Ha Mamathe in Lesotho, is the daughter of two chiefs. Her father, David Masupha, a direct descendant of King Moshoeshoe I, the revered founder of Lesotho, home to the Basotho people, was principal chief until his death in 1996. Her mother then held the role of principal chief of Ha Mamathe and the villages that surround it for 12 years until her death in 2008.

Senate Masupha is an only child, and Lesotho’s laws prohibit women from inheriting the chieftainship in any instance other than the death of a husband who was a chief. In this instance, therefore, Masupha’s mother may have been chief but upon her death the position could be inherited only by a male heir.

“My parents were chiefs all their lives — that was their right. I felt very secure when I was growing up,” Masupha told CNN. “But when my mother passed on, I was taken out of my comfort zone. There was a sudden tension in the family about who would inherit the chieftainship. I was a victim of this tension, because it was as if I wasn’t even there.”

When her future became uncertain, Masupha filed a case with Lesotho’s Constitutional Court for her right to inherit the chieftainship in 2013. This step, which held that the law was discriminatory on the basis of sex, challenged Section 10 of Lesotho’s Chieftainship Act, which excluded unmarried women from succession to chieftainship.


At the time of filing this legal challenge, Masupha was quoted by IOL saying, ““This case is not just about me, but about all women in Lesotho. It is aimed at ending women’s second-class status and ensuring that we have equal access to all aspects of Lesotho life.”

Her case was rejected, however, as was the appeal a year later, with the judges arguing that the modernisation of the rule was a matter for Parliament.

Of Lesotho’s 22 principal chiefs, who constitute the majority of the country’s Senate, only one, Khoabane Theko, principal chief of Thaba Bosiu, supports Masupha’s fight.

“A girl child does not choose to be born a girl, so in my opinion the laws that discriminate against her are totally heinous,” Theko told CNN.

He went on to highlight the inadequacy and hypocrisy of a system that respects female chiefs who assume the role from their deceased husbands but withholds it from female children.


“We don’t consider the brilliance of a girl child and what she might be able to bring to the chieftainship if she was given the chance to rule,” he says.

Read: Lesotho: a Tale of Two Kingdoms

The other principal chiefs cling to the existing cultural norms, arguing that, in Basotho culture, a woman marries into the man’s family. For that reason, any future children belong to his clan. Complications in succession could arise in the case of an unmarried women chief who later marries.

“It cannot work the other way around,” Principal Chief Peete Lesaoana Peete of Koeneng and Mapoteng explained to CNN. “If a girl child inherits the chieftainship, she will take it out of the family when she gets married; she will derail the royal lineage. She cannot marry a man into her family. That is culturally taboo.”

Masupha, however, remains steadfast in her battle for succession and equality, saying, “Patriarchy is entrenched in the fabric of our society, to the extent that women themselves see it as a normal way of life and continue to enforce it.”


She is further bolstered by the fact that Lesotho’s neighbours have made the progression and maintains that Lesotho will have to follow suit eventually.

“There is no way that Lesotho can sustain its current retrogressive laws,” she says. “It’s only a matter of time before we get to where we’re supposed to be.”