CIVICUS speaks about the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Botswana with Dumiso Gatsha, an LGBTQI+ activist and founder of Success Capital.
Success Capital is a youth and feminist-led organisation working to strengthen youth agency and autonomy in human rights and sustainable development while challenging power, privilege and patriarchy through intersectionality. Its approaches include participatory research, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and advocacy.
Has the 2019 High Court ruling that decriminalised same-sex relations led to improvements?
The 2019 ruling had structural effects: by declaring the criminalisation of same-sex intimacy unconstitutional, it eliminated not only the possibility of prosecution but also the excuse that was often used to exclude LGBTQI+ people from service delivery. It affirmed our existence as Batswana, Africans and people and heralded a new field of untapped opportunities for improving the lives of all people in Botswana, not only LGBTQI+ people.
Documented instances of violence against queer people in social settings, hate speech and intolerance online have increased. This doesn’t mean violence itself has increased – only that it is now more visible. Decriminalisation has improved the environment to report on and seek redress for human rights violations, injustices and inequities.
However, there has also been backlash, and violence may be on the rise as a result of the higher visibility, agency and advocacy by LGBTQI+ people.
It’s true that in Botswana there weren’t any immediate negative reactions to the High Court ruling, unlike in countries such as Kenya or Namibia, where progressive judgements elicited immediate protest action. But, reflective of wider and broader anti-gender ideology influences, earlier this year there have been protest marches led by churches, a whole four years after the High Court ruling. This means that for those opposed to LGBTQI+ rights, the matter is far from settled.
The anti-rights reaction was triggered by a member of parliament’s request to consult with churches on the procedural steps parliament needed to take to amend the Penal Code in line with the 2021 ruling by the Court of Appeal that upheld the High Court’s decision. From what we understand, this ruling was needed to finally put the matter of decriminalisation to rest, having ensured that all processes had been exhausted within Botswana’s jurisdiction.
Representatives of churches and members of parliament questioned the very essence of our democracy. They publicly threatened politicians in a pre-election year, bringing confusion about the democratic process and denouncing our existence as citizens who have rights.
The strength of the backlash despite the time that has passed shows that decriminalisation is only the beginning. It is not the solution or end point in fulfilling human rights, but it serves as a basis for much-needed interventions in social, cultural, institutional and public participation spaces.
How has civil society, and your organisation in particular, responded?
Fighting back has been a slow and protracted process because of limited resources. Botswana’s higher middle income country status and narrow avenues for civil society engagement have meant that the gains made from decriminalisation could not be strategically amplified across the human rights, sexual and reproductive rights and democratic landscape.
Success Capital has less than five per cent of the resources that more prominent civil society organisations have. This means grassroots, hidden and hard-to-reach communities and constituents are left behind – notably in more rural, climate-affected and impoverished areas, where queerness, migrant status, disability, sex work status and being an ethnic minority are all second to socioeconomic status and the need to secure a livelihood.
Our constituents didn’t feel threatened by the anti-LGBTQI+ protests, which is reflective of their resilience and agency. But this was a moment to gauge how unprepared philanthropy is to respond to backlash and regressive attempts. I was shocked when a funder asked me what I was doing about it while knowing full well that they had delayed disbursing funds aimed at removing human rights barriers for LGBTQI+ people.
Still, we commemorated Pride and helped host the Changing Faces Changing Spaces conference organised by the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative, for which we helped secure visas and provided advice to LGBTQI+ people and sex workers from across Africa. We worked in solidarity with East African groups in the context of increasing anti-LGBTQI+ sentiments, engaged in strategic policy-oriented dialogue with other civil society leaders, made a solidarity visit to Namibia and networked to ensure that we would be prepared for whatever came next. None of this was externally funded – it was pure feminist decolonial action underpinning our belief in our own freedom, with or without decriminalisation.
Has there been any change in the state of public opinion in Botswana on LGBTQI+ rights?
The Afrobarometer survey has noted some improvements in public opinion, but intolerance and hate speech remain prevalent. National-level data is not always reflective of the situation in local and grassroots communities. Language, socioeconomic status and the availability of services all contribute to how people in Botswana participate and perceive different issues.
For example, in our own community engagements in rural locations we have noted that abortion is mostly accepted on the basis of an understanding of the challenges experienced by many who end up pregnant. However, more than one abortion is frowned upon. And we see similar nuances across sexual orientation, sex characteristics and gender identity issues. For instance, feminine queer men tend to be tolerated more than trans women, as are masculine lesbian women giving birth, while bisexual men are emasculated online. Social parameters are too wide to be readily captured without meaningful resources and political will to ensure all LGBTQI+ people are included in state policy and programming.
Have you experienced any negative repercussions from your work?
Yes. Invitations have been rescinded and scrutiny increased. We are policed on who can be invited to take part in social participation mechanisms that include government officials. We are denied an audience despite fulfilling all the necessary steps in writing invitations, submitting proposals and following up through the hierarchy. For instance, we applied for approval for civil society participation in the 2023 World Bank-International Monetary Fund Spring meetings, and despite receiving permission from parliamentary caucuses, a ministry interrogated us on what we wanted to do and why we wanted to attend.
We had our email address blocked to prevent us submitting future statements to the United Nations. We have been denied funding for being too radical, and calling out funders has not really worked for us.
I’ve had several encounters with law enforcement. The first happened when a fellow volunteer was strangled and I recorded audio of the incident before police confiscated my phone. We are exploring a case on this at the moment. The second happened when a trans colleague was questioned because how she presented was not the same as the gender stated on her identity card. And more recently, we were told of plainclothes police in non-branded cars patrolling and possibly shooting people who don’t stop on highways when instructed to in the middle of nowhere. This kind of policing is harmful, unlawful and abusive, and is being used to target LGBTQI+ people without any accountability.
Where do these restrictions come from?
Some restrictions we’ve faced reflect a regional landscape in which LGBTQI+ networks have shut down, limiting representation, and a global trend in which eligibility, visa and logistical support have only worsened, limiting civil society participation in advocacy and governance mechanisms.
Civil society in Botswana is not immune from these trends. Even within the Global Fund mechanism, the most prominent enabler of those fighting for sexual health rights, delays have taken up most of the current financial year, compromising eight months of service provision.
I think we are underestimating the reach of anti-rights groups. Although global anti-rights influences have existed for decades, domestic counterparts have recently grown emboldened and are increasingly well resourced. Botswana’s higher middle income country status reflects a skewed and unequal income distribution and hides the fact that the few with capital and wealth side with the conservative, morally driven powerholders and are not afraid to deploy their influence against human rights activists. Criminalisation is good business for the politicians that also run corporations. Inequality is good news for those with means and power to subjugate those left behind.
How do you connect with LGBTQI+ rights movements abroad and internationally? What international support do you receive, and what further support do you need?
LGBTQI+ activists are dynamic and diverse. Success Capital has always engaged in collaborative knowledge sharing, linking with other initiatives and sharing the space in advocacy sessions, side events and mobilising actions. We take pride in unearthing young, emergent and nascent activists and movements that operate in the margins and sharing our platform with them. This helps us continue and challenge conversations in rooms we can’t access or engage in.
Since decriminalisation, international support has been quite high. It has, however, been skewed. It has followed a hierarchy that’s reflective of wider trends, with more institutionalised groups having easier access to funding and benefitting from the development industrial complex the most. Grassroots organisations continue to be left behind, lacking institutional or long-term funding.
Solidarity is like sunshine – everyone deserves some. That’s why the ecosystem needs to be steered towards collaboration. And it must focus on strategising so that we don’t merely react to crises and anti-rights action, but we take the initiative in the struggle for our rights.
Civic space in Botswana is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.