Caine Youngman has called on all public service providers including law enforcement and health professionals to step down from their moral high ground and serve everyone equally and without bias.
If you think about it, the government of Botswana is like that drunkard uncle who tells you not to drink alcoholwhile knocking back a 750 ml quart of his favorite beer, spilling some of it on the shirt hes been wearing for three days straight. Do as I say, not as I do would say the drunken uncle.
The government that formulated the Vision 2016 pillar of a moral and tolerant nation which calls for greater tolerance and acceptance of differences between every Motswana is the very same government that has shown intolerance of a certain minority group based primarily on their sexual orientation. By refusing to register the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) as a society and therefore denying members of the LGBT community the same human rights as their heterosexual counterparts the government, like the drunken uncle, came off looking like a hypocrite in the eyes of those affected.
However, the highest court in the land recently ruled that government was wrong to refuse to register an organization that represents homosexuals and sexual minority groups, in a landmark case that tested the countrys anti-homosexuality laws.
LEGABIBO launched the legal battle after Minister of Labour and Home Affairs Edwin Batshu rejected an application to register the organization as a society. The court dismissed Batshus argument that registration might encourage members of the LGBT community to break the law since homosexuality is criminalized in Botswana.
When handing down the judgment, Judge Ian Kirby said the refusal to allow the registration of LEGABIBO was unconstitutional.
That concern or reason for refusal was irrational on the evidence before us, so there can be no question of his decision being necessary in the interests of public order, said Kirby.
A frustrated people
God did not make Adam and Steve or Madam and Eve, they say. But imagine existing in a world where your sexuality attracts a spectrum of responses consisting of everything from homophobic insults, threats of violence to fake smiles and fabricated attempts at acceptance and understanding.
LEGABIBO was born out of frustrations of being unable to live a life free of slander, stigma and discrimination.
In an interview with The Botswana Gazette LEGABIBO Advocacy Officer Caine Youngman explained that negative societal attitudes towards LGBT have resulted in the fear of disclosure to public service providers.
Many of the LGBT are unable able to access proper health services. Imagine if you are an effeminate man or a masculine woman and you are sick. You get to the clinic for consultation and she calls her colleagues and says a ko tle go mpontsha motho ke yo, dilo tse ke di bonang! (Come help me out here, I am seeing things). So really you are at the mercy of the health worker and if you dont find a professional and open-minded worker, you are doomed.
Youngman describes how the criminalization of same sex practices in the country has resulted in a lack of targeted health and social welfare programs. As activists and BONELA workers, they end up having to play doctor as the people who come to them are uncomfortable with seeking public health services, which puts their lives at risk.
Not everyone can afford private doctors and not everybody is brave enough to handle the attitude often displayed by healthcare workers. And we as Batswana are not a confrontational people; we dont know how to fight battles. When a service provider like a nurse gives you attitude and judges you, you shy away and go ask for help someplace else. And so to remedy that, we engage with nurses and doctors on how to handle LGBT cases. Because as it is, healthcare policies are not discriminatory, they are for everyone. Its the people who provide those services who are the problem because they bring in their personal opinions into the job.
Homosexuals have often been blamed for the increase in HIV infections in the country. Youngman cited the Botswana National Strategic Framework that shows that those who face stigma and discrimination are prone to infection. The framework also mentions alcohol and high risk sex as the leading drivers of infection.
LGBT face a lot of stigma and discrimination. And when you are constantly discriminated, you stop seeking services such as protection from the police, or health care services therefore putting your health and security at risk. Its bad because we are not free to engage public services that are meant for everyone. I mean who is going to protect us if police officers think we deserve the violent threats thrown at us? Who is going to make sure our health does not deteriorate if the nurses think we are an abomination? Are we not human beings?
Youngman said due to the delayed entry into healthcare and fear of disclosure to health workers, many LGBT turn to alcohol which may lead to high risk sex, in order to escape from their troubles. This exacerbates their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS – a vicious cycle that many cannot escape.
Youngman therefore called on all public service providers including law enforcement and health care professionals to step down from their moral high ground and serve everyone equally and without bias.
But how can they, when their employer the state is intolerant?
Are Batswana warming up to gays?
Maybe not just yet.
However, a newly released Afrobarometer report estimates that about 43 percent of Batswana are not opposed to homosexuals, placing Botswana among one of the most tolerant on the continent.
The survey, which asked respondents in 33 African countries whether they would be opposed to having homosexual neighbours, suggested an important link between tolerance for homosexuals and respondents age and education levels. This means that younger and more educated Africans tend to be more tolerant than their older and less educated counterparts.
In response, Youngman said anything below 90% is not enough.
He also stated that while there is a shift in attitudes and mindset these days, progress is painfully slow. This is to say that the struggle for LGBT human rights is one of setbacks and successes.
Of course not everyone is against us. Some people are more accepting than others and we appreciate it. For example, leaders such as Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Mma Tshireletso and former president Rre Mogae both advocated for our rights. And everyone else who has shown support over the years, we appreciate them. said Youngman.
Much of the stigma and discrimination directed at members of the LGBT community likely stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding and perhaps even fear of the unknown. In Gaborone for example, many men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW) are also in heterosexual relationships. The fear of discrimination results in many closeted individuals who prefer to operate under the faade of heterosexuality.
In that regard, Youngman said as LEGABIBO, they will continue to engage stakeholders and disseminate as much information as they can to the public in a bid to promote awareness and understanding.
People need to understand that we are not here to encourage people to break the law, no. Ours is a fight for human rights. Thats it.
Progress is a slow process
Like the drunken uncle who preaches sobriety, Botswana has a long way to go until laws are fully representational. However, a change of focus away from policy formulation at the top and towards changing peoples attitudes on the ground is what is needed to achieve an all inclusive moral and tolerant nation, as per the vision 2016 going forward. After all, evolution does not happen overnight.