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Retired Botswana judge visits high school, kicks off law school lecture series

Posted March 27, 2012, at 7:08 p.m.
Human rights activist, novelist and former Botswana high court judge Unity Dow speaks with Portland High School students in the library Tuesday, March 27, 2012, after receiving the key to the city from Mayor Michael Brennan. Dow will give the Justice for Women Lecture at the University of Maine Law School Tuesday night.
Human rights activist, novelist and former Botswana high court judge Unity Dow speaks with Portland High School students in the library Tuesday, March 27, 2012, after receiving the key to the city from Mayor Michael Brennan. Dow will give the Justice for Women Lecture at the University of Maine Law School Tuesday night. Buy Photo
Human rights activist, novelist and former Botswana high court judge Unity Dow (left) speaks with Portland High School students —including Kate Suslovic (center) and Isaac Jaegerman (right) —in the library Tuesday, March 27, 2012. Dow will give the Justice for Women Lecture at the University of Maine Law School Tuesday night.
Human rights activist, novelist and former Botswana high court judge Unity Dow (left) speaks with Portland High School students —including Kate Suslovic (center) and Isaac Jaegerman (right) —in the library Tuesday, March 27, 2012. Dow will give the Justice for Women Lecture at the University of Maine Law School Tuesday night. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The first female judge to serve on Botswana’s high court visited a local high school Tuesday afternoon and later was to kick off a new lecture series sponsored by the University of Maine School of Law.

Unity Dow emphasized cross-cultural communication to Portland High School students, including participants in the school’s Global Studies Certificate Program.

“Issues facing young people in Maine are the issues facing students all over world,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. “There are no borders anymore and countries are more porous by choice.”

The result is that there are African communities in Maine and communities from the nations neighboring Botswana now living in the towns and cities in her home country.

Her lecture, “Juggling Truths — When Justice is a Moving Target,” was scheduled for Tuesday night at the Abromson Community Education Center at the University of Southern Maine. It is the first in the new Justice for Women Lecture series. Dow’s visit is being sponsored by the law school.

Dow, 52, became the first female judge appointed to the High Court of Botswana, which is in southern Africa. She retired from the court in 2009 after 10 years on the bench.

She is known in legal circles for the majority opinion she wrote in 2006 that upheld the right of Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert to retain their ancestral lands and hunt game in a nature preserve. Botswana’s government had sought to forcibly relocate them. The trial, closely watched by human rights groups, was the longest and most expensive in the country’s history, according to Columbia Law School, where Dow was a visiting professor in the fall of 2009.

She also is the author of four novels and a nonfiction book, “Saturday is for Funerals,” which was published in 2010. It examines recent successes Botswana has had in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Dow also is known as an advocate for the rights of women and girls.

Her lecture was to focus on issues facing girls in the developing world, including their safety in public spaces and laws that protect and don’t protect women. Dow said she also would touch on access to leadership challenges and hurdles facing women and girls outside the West.

“We have seen dramatic changes in last 10 years but more can be and should be achieved,” she said.

As for the differences between the legal systems of Africa and the United States, Dow said judges outside North America and Europe are more likely to look to cases outside their own system than judges in the West are.

“The [legal] system is much more insular in the West,” she said. “Judges in the developing world are more likely to look beyond their borders to see the question they are considering has been addressed.”

The idea for the lecture series grew out of conversations last year between Peter Pitegoff, dean of the law school, and Westbrook businesswoman and lawyer Catherine Lee, founder and manager of Lee International Business Development, according to Trevor Maxwell, communications director for the law school. Lee’s global practice focuses around greenhouse gas emissions trading.

Lee has traveled extensively and is passionate about justice for women and girls in developing countries and the U.S. She wanted to engage the people of Maine in discussions about those issues, which resonated with the law school’s commitment to have a local effect in Maine and a global reach, according to a law school press release announcing the series.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel in the developing world and I continue to be impressed, awed really, by the extraordinary work being done to eliminate barriers for women and girls,” Lee said. “I hope the lecture series will help us to imagine new possibilities for promoting justice and equal opportunities for women and girls here at home.”

The new lecture series is funded by the University of Maine School of Law Foundation, which created an endowment fund to support the series on an ongoing basis, according to Maxwell. Lee donated $25,000 to start the fund, he said in an email. Other major donors include Robert Moyer, Mary-Jane Blaustein, Deb Aronson and Joe Bornstein, Maddy Corson, Jane Wellehan, Marian McCue, Sherry Huber, Jonathan Lee, and Julia Kahrl.

Current plans call for one lecture a year to be presented in the spring, according to Maxwell.

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