Despite being often dubbed “one of the world’s fastest economies”, the Republic of Botswana is still a developing middle-income country with a sparse population and a complex system of traditional structures in their many villages and communities. Within these communities, social and political leadership is provided by the Chiefs (Dikgosi): traditional village leaders whose opinions both inform and shape those of the communities they represent.
Although last year Botswana’s Court of Appeal upheld a decision to strike down the country’s law against consensual same-sex relationships, there is still widespread discrimination against LGBT+ people and a lack of understanding about LGBT+ human rights. Civil society groups are now finding innovative ways to challenge discrimination and educate leaders about the reality of LGBT+ lives.
As well as being influential over hearts and minds in their local communities, Dikgosi and their deputies (Dikgosana) also hold significant power on the national stage, making up the Ntlo ya Dikgosi (the House of Chiefs), an advisory body within the Parliament of Botswana. Furthermore, Botswana is currently undertaking a country-wide review of the 1966 Constitution and has set up multiple avenues for citizens to engage with the democratic process.
The Rainbow Identity Association (RIA) is a small civil society organisation focusing on the needs of transgender and intersex people and fighting for the human rights of all LGBT+ people in Botswana. They realised that the nationwide constitutional review was an opportunity to shift the dial on LGBTI+ rights in the country by engaging directly with community leaders in places where there was little to no understanding of LGBT+ rights.
With support from Kaleidoscope Trust, RIA led meetings with traditional leaders in ten different locations across Botswana. These meetings brought them together with staff from RIA to talk about LGBT+ issues, allowing RIA staff to challenge discriminatory attitudes, and provide education that sought to change the behaviour and beliefs of citizens towards LGBT+ people. This resulted in Chiefs acknowledging the presence of LGBT+ people within their community, in what could be seen as the first step for understanding and compassion within a relatively conservative political environment.
“Now we understand that we are diverse, and must accept that others are different and must be recognized by the [new] constitution.”
Quote from Kgosi (Chief) who RIA engaged with
Enlisting the allyship of these powerful community leaders is also seen by civil society as a significant step towards ensuring the constitutional reform process enshrines LGBT+ human rights legally. It is hoped that this engagement exercise will contribute not only to improve the living conditions of LGBT+ Batswana but also to build support for a constitution that enshrines the human rights of LGBT+ people in Botswana, similar to the way in which some of these rights are already enshrined in the South African constitution.