Unity Dow: Lawyer, Judge, Human-Rights Activist, and Now Columbia Law School Professor

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New York, Oct. 29, 2009 -- When asked how she would best describe herself, Unity Dow has to think for a moment.
 
After a pause, Dow, a visiting professor at Columbia Law School this fall, concludes, “I guess I’m a lawyer first.”
 
But her prolific résume shows why it’s not an easy question to answer.
 
Dow retired in April after 10 years as a justice on the top court in Botswana, the first woman to hold that job.
 
But she is also an acclaimed author, with four novels and legal thrillers to her credit. These are no mere potboilers. The books address such topics as HIV/AIDS, child protection, and violence against women. And it’s those kinds of issues she has often dealt with – as a lawyer.
 
“Judges are also important. But also the people before the judges are very important,” said Dow, who has worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney, but will now seek to focus on human-rights cases in Botswana and other African nations.
 
This is familiar territory for Dow. She co-founded the AIDS Action Trust and the Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Project, and has been active in many other women’s rights groups. Dow successfully fought to change a Botswana law that banned women married to foreigners from passing on their nationality to their children, though men could.
But while Dow may view herself first as a lawyer, for now, she is a professor, teaching at the Law School a seminar called Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Land and Land-Based Resources. It is a topic on which Dow is an unquestioned authority.

Dow wrote the decision in 2006 for a landmark case upholding the right of Bushmen in the Kalahari to retain their ancestral lands and hunt game in a nature preserve. Botswana had sought to forcibly relocate them. The trial, which was closely watched by human-rights groups, was the longest and most expensive in the country’s history.
 
“It got me thinking about the issue on a broader scale,” Dow said. “How do you retain a cultural identity, which everyone says is a good thing, without being isolated?”
 
Dow has also worked closely on another issue that has gripped Botswana, the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has ravaged Africa. The World Health Organization estimated in 2000 that 85 percent of 15-year-olds in Botswana would eventually die of the disease. However, easy access to retroviral drugs in recent years has ensured that will not happen.
 
“It’s amazing for me to see the changes in the last five years said Dow, noting Botswana was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. “Nobody needs to die anymore.”
 
That Botswana has been able to rewrite a grim tale helped inspire Dow’s first nonfiction book, Saturday is for Funerals, written with Harvard University AIDS researcher Max Essex. The book, due out next May, combines narratives about the tragedies and triumphs of dealing with AIDS with accessible scientific explanations for the problems described.
 
“The problem is not scientific. It’s not medical. It’s everything,” Dow said. “It’s about how people live and love and the struggles people go through.”
 
Though she has been to New York many times, it has been only for short visits to the United Nations. “Hotel. Work. Out,” is how she puts it. During this extended stay, she has one mild complaint that might throw city residents for a loop: it’s too quiet.
 
 “If this was a floor anywhere at home,” she said in her Jerome Greene Hall office, “there’d be noise. People would say, ‘Hello, how are you.’ But here it’s so quiet. If you’re in an elevator at home, you talk to people you don’t know.”
 
And home always looms large. Despite traveling all over the world teaching and lecturing, Dow said she cannot imagine living an extended time away from Africa. Come Christmas, she will be back in Botswana for a quiet holiday with family and attending choir competitions between groups singing songs influenced by the year’s major events.
 
“I’m going to the choirs, and then after that I’m going to go to the bush, go camping, see some elephants, hug a lion,” she joked.
 
The lions at Columbia may be confined to the university’s sports teams, but Dow said her time at the Law School has been fulfilling in other ways.
 
“It’s a revolving door of ideas, I love it,” she said. “I’m sure I will write a book that is influenced by my having been here.”
 
 
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