Progressive Botswana and the LGBT+ Movement

According to Human Rights Watch, it is illegal to have homosexual relationships in 32 of the 54 nations that make up Africa. In addition, in four of those 32 countries (Northern Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia and Mauritania) the act of having sex with someone of the same gender is punishable by death. In Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, three of the countries which border Botswana, it is illegal for LGBT+ citizens to have a relationship and the penalties vary from fines to prison sentences.

In Zambia, LGBT+ couples could even face life imprisonment if caught and convicted. 21 of Africa’s nations have decriminalised homosexual relationships, including Botswana. The first country to do so was South Africa in 1998. Today, South Africa remains the only country within Africa where LGBT+ couples can get married and/or adopt children.

The criminalisation of LGBT relationships in Botswana was carried over from the British colonial era which began in 1885. During this time, the region was known as Bechuanaland. Botswana became an independent nation in 1965, but the anti-gay stigma and laws of colonial Britain had already left their mark, and homosexual relationships were still widely considered taboo and illegal. Homosexuality was not decriminalised in the UK until 1967.

According to The New York Times, ‘more than half of the nations that criminalise homosexuality were once British possessions.’ As a result of this law, homosexual couples had to either remain single or hide their relationship from the public, otherwise, they could face up to seven years of prison simply for being with the person they love.

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In 1998, LeGaBiBo (Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana), the first LGBT organisation in Botswana, was founded. The aim of LeGaBiBo was to push for LGBT rights and prevent the unjust abuse of LGBT people. LeGaBiBo faced a number of setbacks, as the government at that time refused to recognise the group as an organisation. In March 2012, the High Court of Botswana ruled that LeGaBiBo could not be registered under the Botswana Societies Act, as the constitution ‘does not recognize homosexuals.’ LeGaBiBo attempted to appeal against this decision, but this too was rejected. LeGaBiBo persevered, but it wasn’t until 2014 when they finally won their case and were able to be legally registered and recognised as a social group.

In February 2011, Letsweletse Motshidiemang, a student from the University of Botswana, filed a lawsuit in the High Court to decriminalise homosexuality in Botswana. Motshidiemang presented his argument that society was changing and homosexuality was becoming more widely accepted, meaning it was time for the High Court to reconsider its ruling.

His case was supported by both LeGaBiBo and the human rights group BONELA (The Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS), with LeGaBiBo acting as an amicus curiae (a friend of the court who is allowed to assist the case by offering information or insight). The case wasn’t heard until almost eight years later in June 2019. Those in favour of protecting the rights of LGBT citizens included Botswana’s President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, who in late 2018 announced that ‘Just like other citizens, they deserve to have their rights protected.

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The LGBT Community

There was a growing feeling of concern and trepidation amongst the activists who supported Motshiediemang’s case in the lead-up to the court date. Just one month prior, Kenya’s High Court ruled against decriminalising gay relationships. However, on hearing the case, the bench of three judges unanimously ruled that the laws criminalising homosexual relationships should be removed in Botswana as they ‘violate the privacy, liberty and dignity’ of LGBT+ people, and are ‘discriminatory and serve no public interest’.

Judge Michael Leburu also stated that ‘human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalised.’ The ruling was a major historical moment, not just for Botswana but also for Africa’s LGBT+ community, and their supporters. The ruling marks the continual progression of acceptance and equality within the continent, and sparks hope that this progression will continue to bring equal rights to people all over the world. In recent years, Angola, Mozambique and the Republic of Seychelles have also gotten rid of their anti-homosexuality laws.

The growing acceptance around LGBT+ also means that sufferers of HIV are more likely to come forward for testing/treatment as they do not need to risk neglecting their health for fear their sexuality will be exposed. Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, with an estimated 380,000 people living with the disease, according to the HIV and AIDS organisation, Avert.

Botswana is also one of the countries that operate under the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and as a result, an amendment was made to the Employment Act in 2012, which made it against the law to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or HIV status.

Additionally, in 2017, for the first time in Botswana’s history, a transgender man won a High Court case that stated that he should be allowed to hold official documents that show his gender identity. The man who made the case was assigned female at birth but identifies as male. Being misgendered or not having a way to prove your gender can feel as if your identity is being attacked.

By recognising the gender that someone identifies as, rather than the one they have been assigned, people feel seen, having a potentially huge impact on mental wellbeing. His case was also supported by the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), who called the ruling a ‘monumental victory’ for Botswana transgender rights.

As time goes by, Botswana is becoming more and more progressive as a country, with courts supporting the rights of minorities. The support of activists and groups such as LeGaBiBo means that more people can feel represented, safer and confident about their own identities. Guests to Botswana can feel welcome, no matter their sexual orientation, and safe in a foreign land knowing that there is a huge support base made up of local people who continue to push for equality.

Society is learning that rather than try to stamp the parts of us that make us different from one another, we should be celebrating them. The world would not be an interesting place if we were all the same.

This positive change indicates a bright future for both Botswana its people and those who visit this incredible country. Hopefully, more nations both in Africa and across the world will be able to follow their example. Homosexuality is still criminalised in 69 countries globally, forcing couples to live in fear of persecution and punishment. We are all human, and we all deserve to be treated equally, no matter what gender we or the people we love identify as.

“From looking at the difficulties faced by members of the LGBTQI+ community around the world, it is clear that we still have a long way to go before everyone feels equally treated and seen. However, every time we make progress towards true equality, the world becomes a slightly better place, and I am excited for that change. ”

Ceire Warren
Ceire Warren
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