Botswana seems to be a country of different and complex realities. There are women in high-ranking positions like cabinet ministers or chairpersons of companies – though not many women are members of Parliament.
One of the cornerstones of cultural diplomacy is open dialogue between cultures. This year, Botswana turns 55. When our country was formed 55 years ago, there were no women in cabinet (or leading Botswana missions abroad) until Dr. Gaositwe Chiepe joined cabinet almost a decade later. In 1986, Emang Basadi Women’s Association came into formal existence to lobby against laws that discriminated against women in Botswana. Therefore, in commemoration of the 35th birthday of Emang Basadi, I speak below to the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Botswana, Her Excellency Margit Hellwig-Botte. This conversation is reproduced with gratitutde to the Upright African Movement.
DM: Thank you so much, Ambassador, for this conversation. Despite COVID-19’s restrictions on gathering, it remains crucial to create conversation about gender parity. With a global pandemic raging, was your office able to commemorate the International Women’s Day this year like in other years?
MH: As you know we are operating under Covid protocol in Botswana so there was not much possibility to celebrate with other women. We basically passed our messages online, and decided to highlight that at our Embassy, many positions have been taken over by women that, for a long time, were entirely occupied by men, like the head of mission, the head of administration, and the driver and administrative assistant of the Embassy.
DM: Those developments calm my anxieties about inequality. They must certainly make you feel proud.
MH: I am extremely proud that my driver is a lady who is not only an excellent driver, but she also knows how to find her way in the men’s world of all the other drivers of the diplomatic community in Gaborone.
DM: Ambassador, you took up your post at the mission here in Gaborone last year. You have served around the world and across cultures. What have you observed about the status of women in Botswana?
MH: Botswana seems to be a country of different and complex realities. There are women in high-ranking positions like cabinet ministers or chairpersons of companies – though not many women are members of Parliament. The young professionals whom I met recently at the Embassy before they were going to work or do research in Germany with grants of German companies or the German government were all women. So that means there is a lot of potential among well-educated women in Botswana to assume high positions as much as men do. But at the same time I keep on reading reports about violence against women and girls, on the rise especially in times of Covid, about women feeling insecure in the city when walking alone – that seems to indicate that there are issues for women in Botswana and they are not considered equal to men. I have not been able to travel much in the country yet, but I would assume that this is especially true in the rural areas.
DM: There are certainly urgent issues as we have become a society that is unsafe for women. In fact, Botswana has the second highest incidences of gender-based violence in the world. His Excellency President Masisi has repeatedly pleaded with the nation to support his mandate to combat gender-based-violence. In your opinion, what can ordinary Batswana do to make that change for the nation? How are such challenges comparatively addressed in Germany?
MH: I commend President Masisi and the First Lady very much for leading by example and tackling the issue of GBV from the top. I think that gives people role models they can follow in their own behaviour. But the real change for the nation would in fact have to come from ordinary people, from every parent raising their boys to respect girls, from every father empowering his daughter and considering her equal to her brother. In Germany we have recently discovered that empowering girls also means that you have to care for boys in schools and kindergartens and give them good male role models. Something else which has been established in Germany to help women in distress is to offer shelter in so called “Frauenhäusern“, meaning shelters or houses paid for by the community or the city where women can move in with their kids and live there for some time in case they are severely harassed by their husbands or partners.
DM: Emang Basadi’s 35th anniversary is crucial to us at the Upright African Movement as we seek to decolonize our thinking around gender norms. I personally grew up admiring women Dr. Unity Dow because she took the government to court and won, ensuring that Batswana women can transmit citizenship to their children. She was hugely supported by Emang Basadi, of course. When you were growing up in Kassel, Germany as a young woman, who were the women who inspired you and why?
MH: I grew up as a single child. My family lived in a small town near the city of Kassel, quite a rural area, and I think that the first people who inspired me were both my parents. My mother taught me how to cook and to work in the garden, and my father taught me how to change the tyres of the car and to use a hammer and a screw-driver. So I didn’t really have the experience of being discriminated against as a girl. Of course my mother used to say things like „girls don’t do that“ when I climbed onto trees and tore my clothes but I just didn’t care and continued climbing on trees because it was fun. Later, at school, I looked up to some lady-teachers because they were very independent in their thinking, also quite demanding in the courses of English language and German literature which they taught.
DM: Botswana is internationally renowned for peace and stability. Before we can have peace at a global scale, I believe peace begins in our lives, whether we live in dignity and with access to peace in our homes. Global statistics show that the COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc on peace in Botswana households, prompting many world leaders to make connections between the pandemic and the rise in domestic abuse. What role can and does diplomacy play in today’s world towards gender parity in the world at large?
MH: In my view diplomacy is the art of talking and listening to people from different cultural and political backgrounds and, if all goes well, to bring people together for a common objective. The UN are a case in point. They do that on many occasions, also for the cause of women. Resolution 1325 of the UN security council on women, peace and security is such an occasion where the Security Council agreed on the need to better protect women in armed conflicts and also to make better use of the abilities of women to moderate and de-escalate in conflict situations. Of course, individual states have to translate this into national action plans and promote activities with and for women in their respective societies. But they can be held accountable by the UN and that is a clear progress. At the end of the day, diplomacy can only raise awareness but that is already better than not doing anything for the cause of women.
*Donald Molosi (@donaldmolosi) is an actor, writer and public intellectual. He is the author of We Are All Blue and Dear Upright African.