Gay issue finally brings Botswana together

Protesters scamper for safety as police dispersing a crowd protesting over the presence of alleged gays in the Kenya port town of Mombasa. Zimbabwe is embroiled in big debate about gay rights. Photo | FILE  

It has one of the fastest growing economies and a high Hiv/Aids prevalence rates in the world but that is not all. Today, in a bid to tackle what is seen as a growing issue, Botswana is increasingly getting more open about gay issues.

On the streets, public transport even media, you hear a country speaking with itself, on these issues, and this has attracted a lot of attention- approval and criticisms in equal measures.

Gays and lesbians in Botswana appear surprisingly emboldened, coming out to announce their sexual preferences in public.
More liberal views about gay and lesbian rights have been heard from some of the top religious and political figures in Botswana.

To crown it all, Botswana gays and lesbians have mustered the courage to challenge laws outlawing same sex relationships in court.

The pro-gay lobbyists may not not have the numbers it needs to sway opinion but there are some heavyweight sympathizers-newspaper readers and participants in callers-in radio programmes who are pushing their agenda.

Currently, the key players in the debate include former Botswana president Festus Mogae, his successor Ian Khama, Health minister, John Seakgosing, Home Affairs minister, Peter Siele, Botswana Congress Party (BCP) president and Gaborone Central MP, Dumelang Saleshando and deputy Speaker of Parliament Pono Moatlhodi.

There is a simmering battle for same sex rights who want the Southern Africa country to supply condoms in men’s prisons to control the spread of HIV/Aids.

Proponents of condoms in prisons argue that there is free-wheeling unprotected gay sex in prison and to curb the spread of HIV infections, the rubber must be made available in the cells. Never mind that heterosexual intercourse is illegal in Botswana like many countries.

But do not say such things to people like Mr Mogae. “If men go to prison and come out infected, then we should take interest in their sexual activities while they are in there,” he told the National AIDS Council (NAC).

“My feeling personally is that this is an area that should be explored,” he added.

“I am not interested in knowing whether it is right or wrong, my feeling is that if there is anything we can give to these people to protect themselves, then let us do so,” Mr Mogae argued.

He gets support from an unlikely quarter, the outspoken Botswana Congress Party (BCP) president and Gaborone Central MP Dumelang Saleshando and Dr Seakgosing, who is also a cleric.

The eloquent Mr Saleshando has stated that HIV is prevalent in prisons and therefore inmates should be supplied with condoms to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

The sentiments are backed by President Ian Khama and Botswana Anglican head, Bishop Trevor Musonda Mwanba among those with liberal views on same sex relationship. This gives one a potent line-up in the pro-gay corner. But there is a twist to the tale. The minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Peter Siele who is charge of registering marriages and societies says he can’t stand talk about same sex relationships.

On the other side of the debate is Mr Moatlhodi. The official was recently hard put to explain reports that he called for the killing of homosexuals though he accepted that he does not like them one bit.
“I don’t like those gay people and will never tolerate them. They are demonic and evil.” he told a meeting organised by an NGO, Botswana Network of Law and HIV/Aids (Bonela) to lobby MPs to support gay rights and supply of condoms in prisons.

Bonela even paraded an inmate at the meeting to testify that gay sex is rampant in prison.

“We are gay men and women and we are not fooling around. You have to understand that while in prison some men do have sexual relationships with others, and these are not necessarily gay or bisexual men. These are men in need of sexual relief and if it is with other men, so be it. I have seen happily married men have gay relationships,” he told the meeting.

Soon after the meeting, the gays and homosexuals in Botswana moved to court to challenge legislation they feel are unconstitutional because they outlaw same sex relationships.
Through the unregistered Lesbians Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana – Legabibo – and Bonela, gay rights activists in Botswana want parts of Section 164 of the country’s penal code which criminalises homosexuality amended or repealed.

Bonela, Legabibo and human rights activists say that the law denies people protection from diseases, the right to associate and to express their sexuality.

Medicine and prayer
The director of Bonela, Mr Uyapo Ndadi says the law does not have a place in modern Botswana where all people are protected by the constitution regardless of their religious belief and sexual preferences.

Ms Monica Tabengwa, a human rights lawyer and Legabibo chairperson said that even though the law criminalises sex against the order of nature it is not clear what nature is or whose nature it is.
“Is it defined by the President of Botswana or the different religions that we have?” she asks.

Ms Tabengwa says there is a common constitution that should be held supreme above religious beliefs and any other structures that may be used to define nature and morality.

“We are a nation with diverse beliefs, religions and ways of living. Some people do not even believe in any god. No one should impose his or her beliefs on these people,” she says.

She states that the law has no business interfering in people’s bedrooms. “I do not see what the law could be doing in people’s houses, because there is even no intention to harm. People should be allowed their privacy,” she says.

Supporters of gay and lesbian rights in Botswana say homosexuality is not a sin or a matter of choice but a combination of genetic, hormonal and societal development that cannot be changed by medicine or prayer.

The issue has caused controversy and heated debate in the country with a majority rejecting gays and lesbians either for legal, cultural, religious or moral reasons.

In general, the top leadership in Botswana plus a majority of the common folk are opposed to gay and lesbian rights. Many have written newspaper articles condemning same sex relations.


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