Grey and shrinking – the state of Botswana’s feminist movement

02 Mar 2014

Say Beijing Conference and most switched on Batswana immediately think of the halcyon days of the local feminist movement. Almost two decades after Batswana women joined their counterparts in Beijing to add their voices to the campaign for gender equality; Botswana has not shaken off the post Beijing nostalgia. That is hardly surprising. The Botswana women’s movement is grey, fatigued and shrinking; and all talk of its exploits are really about the past.

The outlook for the feminist movement is grim, even Imelda Molokomme, a dedicated keeper of the flame does not habour any illusions.

“It would seem women have given up and surrendered to the cause. Numbers were higher before and after the period when women returned from the World Conference on Women held in Beijing 1995,” says Molokomme, a long serving, dedicated community developer, gender activist and mother of the current and first ever female Attorney General (AG) of Botswana, Dr. Athalia Molokomme. Molokomme’s daughter the AG, like her mother has spent years down in the trenches and have a number of accolades to show for her pains. She is a founding member of women’s advocacy group Emang Basadi, founding member of Women and Law in Southern Africa, lecturer, former judge and acclaimed scholar.

When the world celebrates the International Women’s Day this week (8th March and March 25th) the past will be looming large and Botswana will have at least one eye on the rear view mirror. Gender activists and journalists will be excavating stories of past glory and discussing the significance of various eras. Passionate women’s rights activist and Sociology lecturer at the University of Botswana, Elsie Alexander shares the view that the local movement was vibrant with stronger mobilization back in the 1980’s when NGO’s like ‘Emang Basadi’ were formed. Alexander and Molokomme reminisced about the 80’s when a surge of pro-active groups and vigilant voices willing to challenge the status quo of male dominance and push for women and girls rights held Botswana spellbound. Leading up to the Beijing conference in 1995 and after the conference up to 2005 saw the movement sustained and the emergence of advocacy groups like ‘The Kagisano Society Women’s Shelter Project’ and ‘Women against Rape’.

This was the era that produced battle hardened heroines. In 1992, a Human Rights Lawyer known for her vehement support of the Basarwa rights, later to become the country’s first female High Court judge who was awarded the French Medal of the Legion d’honneur de France for her human rights activities and now a politician in the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Unity Dow changed the law when she fought for her children’s rights. Thanks to Dow the Citizenship Act 1998 allows for the children of women by foreign nationals to be considered Batswana. Those were the heady days; the lopsided Marital Power Act was amended in 2004, the Domestic Violence Act was introduced in 2008 and the Children’s Act was passed in 2009. Despite these huge strides, ‘The Botswana government has not committed to signing the SADC Gender and Development Protocol’ says Alexander.

An elaborate report submitted to the Botswana Council of NGO’s (BOCONGO) in November 2012 however tries to give this dying voice a kiss of life. The report titled ‘The BOCONGO Gender and Development Sector – Reinvigorating the Gender Movement’, indicates that historically the gender movement in Botswana started in the 1960’s a time when organisations like ‘The Botswana Council of Women (BCW) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) where formed; the first women’s conference in Botswana was held in 1975, ‘A period which saw the emergence of business and professional women’. This era was the era when all concerned realised that “they have to do it collectively,” says Alexander.

Then what happened? The main factor that dampened the collective spirits of the women’s movement and muted their voices was the lack of financing for the cause due to the global economic recession in the last five years. Molokomme argues that the movement was negatively affected by the death of these voices creating awareness on, and generating discussions about gender equality. This was not helped by the replacement of volunteerism with the expectation to get paid. The BOCONGO report also alludes to the point of volunteerism fading away, ‘Before NGO’s survived without any funding. We should first find out and be clear what our mandate is, social responsibility’. Political Commentator, Lawrence Ookeditse concurs with the advocates that when Botswana was declared ‘upper to middle income’ donors took flight. South Sudan is the nation that currently has the donor’s attention.

Ookeditse’s opinion is that local businesses must support and finance the gender equality movement. “Lack of funding affected the movement, resulting in the gender movement fatigue.” Valencia Mogegeh, The Director of the Gender Affairs Department under the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, shares the view with Ookeditse and emphasises that donor funding reduced substantially when Botswana was classified a developed to a developing country. Despite this dilemma Mogegeh assures that, “We have not reached a point of despair. Footprints are on the ground. If anything we need to try and keep our priorities balanced. Government still remains committed to this cause because the need is still as huge.” The Director explains that as Gender Affairs Department, or ‘a policy house’ they remain focussed on strengthening partnerships with those doing the actual ground work like the NGO’s.

“Although I don’t have the specific details as yet, we are going to be having EDF 10, which will be building capacities for the NGO’s. Certainly that is something to look forward to,” adds Mogegeh.

The Director agrees that the prominent voices subsided however she acknowledges efforts of community groups doing ground work in the remote and rural areas. “There are smaller groups stimulating on the ground. They are still able to do decent work that is relevant to their communities, messages that appeal to their own; although this is not on a sustainable level.” The Gender Affairs Department currently spearheads the internationally commemorated and annually held ‘16 days of Activism against Violence on Women and Children’. Statistics from the Gender Links webpage (2013) reveal that out of five countries in the SADC region namely Botswana, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, Botswana is the third most affected by Gender Based Violence (GBV), “With at least 67% of women reporting to have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime and 44% of men admitting to have committed some form of violence against women in their lifetime,”. Zambia has the highest prevalence of GBV which includes acts such as rape, physical abuse and murder. Zimbabwe follows Zambia with 68% percent of women having experienced GBV. Forth is South Africa and last Mauritius with 24% women having experienced GBV in their lifetime and 23% men having perpetrated such acts.

Newly elected Member of Parliament (MP) for the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and the first female opposition member in the house, Dr. Habaudi Hobona, a general medical practitioner says, “It takes a lot for a woman as compared to a man. Traditional norms are that women are minors. Much as statutes are trying to reverse that, it is a challenge from that very point of view.” Dr. Hobona who was sworn in to parliament on February 2014 explains that, “To compete in a reserved place for men you eventually reach barriers where you are considered a rebel, you have to put right your image.” Her next hurdle is that of striking the balance, “As a mother I need my career and my children. Statues award custody to the mother. If not through statutes expectations, beliefs and the socialization of men is that women take care of children better,”

Dr. Hobona has done research relating to the life expectancy of women in Botswana, “I would like to bring a motion to parliament that will bring the spotlight back to social ills that women face that are hidden culturally.” Social ills which may possibly affect the HIV/AIDS infections rates.

Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Local Government and MP for the ruling BDP Bothogile Tshireletso has been a councillor in her constituency, Mahalapye East, for the past 25 years and is going on her 10th year as an MP. “Culture is still a barrier; where I work in rural areas they still see a man as the leader. Women are in the majority and they chose to vote for men.” The Minister wishes more ‘competent and educated women would enter the political race’ so that they can give the voters better alternative, resulting in endorsements to carry out campaigns. She advises women to change attitudes and start to support other women.

New democracies such as South Africa, Mozambique and Rwanda have higher levels of representation and participation of women in top level government institutions such as parliament and cabinet. The Institute for Security Studies reveals that Rwanda by 2013 had 64% representation of women in parliament although critics argue that this statistic masks the low level of representation of women in other sectors of decision making in Rwanda. “In post conflict societies like Rwanda and South Africa, men know the role that women can play and have played in building the nation and do vote for them,” observes Ookeditse. Molokomme who has travelled to Rwanda adds that, “Rwandan women are brave. They have the do or die attitude,” in comparison, “Women in Botswana believe in peace and tend to stay in the confines of their comfortable homes,” she wonders, “If your neighbour is suffering violations what kind of person are you not to do something about it?”

The advice from the political commentator Ookeditse is that feminism needs to change its face and strategy if to successfully lobby the stakeholders who are majority men.

“The perception is that we must vote for women even if they are incompetent. We need to change that perception. These ideals that women seek are actually national ideals; good education, good health, a dignified life and equal opportunities for all.” Alexander agrees with Ookeditse that the gender equality message needs to be re-packed and re-positioned “It is the way in which people interpret feminism. Feminism is all about equality, and it is not un-African either,” explains Alexander. Ookeditse says great strides have been taken by the warriors and champions of the cause in previous years however he maintains and encourages a change in strategy. “Let’s not make it a battle of the sexes. You can’t sell something to a man that seems to be disempowering them. You need to get buy-in. Women empowerment strategies must be sold as national ideals because they are.”