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Zimbabwe Supreme Court Ruling Advances Women's Rights, Albeit on Technicality

The case arose in 2006 when the Office of the Registrar General refused to let former Sunningdale member of parliament Margaret Dongo sign a passport application for her son, requiring his father to do so

Zimbabwean women’s organizations have welcomed a landmark Supreme Court ruling saying that a mother has the right to seek a passport for a minor child without involving the father.

The ruling arose from a 2006 application by former Sunningdale legislator Margaret Dongo, who was taken aback when the Office of the Registrar General refused to allow her to sign a passport application for her son.

Dongo was shocked and outraged to be told she could not sign the passport application because, according to registry officials, she was not the guardian of the child. Common law in Zimbabwe, supported by the Guardianship of Minors Act, holds that the father of marital children is their legal guardian.

Had Dongo been a widow or unmarried she would not have faced such a prohibition. Not one to take injustice sitting down, Dongo with the help of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association filed an application with the Supreme Court, which found issuing a passport is not a "{juristic act," so the legislation did not apply.

In her application to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Dongo argued that the registrar general discriminated against women by recognizing men as the natural guardians of children over women - although the law recognizes women who are unmarried or widowed as the natural guardians of their minor children.

The Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association welcomed the decision – but said it would rather have seen the court rule not on the basis of the “juristic act” technicality, but to uphold the principle of equal rights for women.

Women’s Trust Executive Director Luta Shaba told VOA Studio 7 reporter Patience Rusere that it is significant the exclusion was not on the basis of legislation but a discriminatory interpretation by the Registrar’s Office.