Botswana’s resilient LGBTI community is hopeful their years long fight to decriminalize same-sex relations will be successful soon.
On Thursday (14 March) the High Court in Gaborone – Botswana’s capital city – will hear arguments on the law criminalizing ‘unnatural offences’.
Section 164 of Botswana’s Penal Code outlaws ‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’. Those convicted are liable to imprisonment up to seven years.
But in May last year a gay man known only as LM, filed a petition in the High Court arguing the laws were unconstitutional. The High Court delayed the start of the hearing, but in December announced it would start on 14 March.
Located is a landlocked country in southern Africa and the third-highest prevalence of HIV in the world. But stigma and discrimination often deters LGBTI people from seeking tests and treatment.
Botswana’s LGBTI community is a mix of nervous but excited ahead of the trial’s start. That’s according to LGBTI rights commentator, Ratanang Onkokame Mosweu.
‘The LGBTI community and movement is having mixed feelings. A lot of us are scared because this issue is now in the open, and people are thinking “what if it doesn’t go as expected, how will this affect our work and our lives?”,’ he told Gay Star News.
‘We’re anxious and excited to finally make our stand in a public space.’
Ratanang felt hopeful the court would rule in favor of overturning Section 164 following a series of recent ‘progressive’ rulings and legislative changes. They include ruling to allow a trans man and woman to be recognized as their true gender on official documents. Even Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, spoke out in support of LGBTI people in a groundbreaking statement last year.
He personally feels the court will rule to decriminalize same-sex relations. Especially because he believes it is enshrined in Botswana’s ethos as a country.
‘Since our independence from England in 1964, our country was fundamentally built on unity and love and dignity,’ he said.
‘This is about people’s lives, freedom, right to the life they deserve, social security, and advances that will uplift the economy.’
3 Days To Go!!
The Law Needs to Change!
Criminalisation of consensual same sex-sexual relations encourages discrimination in workplace for LGBTIQ persons!
— #LEGABIBO (@legabiboadvo) March 11, 2019
LEGABIBO is Botswana’s leading LGBTI advocacy and support organization. The High Court approved it as ‘amicus curiae’ (friend of the court) in LM’s proceedings. Preparing for the High Court case has kept them busy and given them a few ‘grey hairs’.
They have worked tirelessly to raise awareness and support of the LGBTI community.
‘Our PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) representatives have been working with traditional and religious leaders,’ said Bradley Fortuin, LEGABIBO Communication and Documentation Officer.
‘We found that traditional leaders were more likely to listen to people in the same age group as them. Traditional and religious leaders are often seen as the gatekeeper of morality.’
The peer-to-peer advocacy seems to have worked. Some traditional leaders took in homeless LGBTI people until they could find a job or it was safe for them to go home.
LEGABIBO has also engaged in a media and public relations blitz to convince the wider Botswana population to support them.
‘Leading up to the court case, we have been mobilising the community to have everyone on board to come and support us,’ Fortuin said.
Ray of sunshine
Ratanang has long been an advocate for the LGBTI community and has participated in several court cases. So he knows first hand how the fight ‘breaks people’s hearts’.
But he is hopeful and remains positive.
‘What a great time to be in Botswana. What a great time to be in Botswana and be LGBTI,’ he said.
‘Our livelihoods have been compromised because we have been systematically disempowered, we’ve had to deal with instiutionalized hate because we face disc in healthcare, employment and the law.
‘But I feel a ray of sunshine and happiness that we will soon be able to finally lead dignified lives.’
— #LEGABIBO (@legabiboadvo) March 9, 2019
What if it doesn’t go in favor of the LGBTI community?
Even if the High Court does not overturn Section 164, it would be a tough blow but would not ‘break’ LGBTI people.
‘The LGBTI community in Botswana has over the years been in this sustained fight. ‘There’s nothing at this point that will completely break us, if we don’t win we will go back to the drawing board,’ Ratanang said.
‘We will not be silenced. If we don’t win this round, we will keep fighting and we will not be intimidated or silenced by the patriarchal, homophobic and sexist system.
‘We’re ready to leave our mark.’
The court could take anywhere from a few weeks up to a year to hand down its final ruling.