Saturday, May 21, 2022

Condoms in prison debate: a further scrutiny of VP Merafhe’s line of thought

I would like to propel condoms in prisons debate further. In fact, when the last National AIDS Council (NAC) dispersed, the Acting Chairperson, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe, urged members to disseminate information on National AIDS Council business to the public, and I am walking his talk. First and foremost, the remarks by the Vice President are disturbing and I see them necessitating a full rebuttal.

Secondly, I would like to talk about the germane issues on the subject, as I see them.
Regarding the VP’s remarks, more specifically, that prisoners said to government that they do not want condoms, the question is, who did the VP speak to, and under what circumstances? Were the views of all inmates sought, by whom and how?

Assuming, though I doubt, that a question was put to the inmates publicly: do you want condoms? Who would expect an affirmative answer? No one! Men generally, even outside prison, are shy to ask for condoms. In fact, only the brave ones would publicly buy or get them. Majority prefer, including married men who are morally expected to have sex, obtaining them from secluded areas such as toilets. I, therefore, say to the VP, your question to inmates, if at all it was asked, was most unfair.

The VP went on to say giving inmates condoms presupposes that they have second wives in prisons. I am struggling to appreciate the merit in this statement; the reality is that, married women nowadays do go to the extent of ensuring that their husbands when they go on trips carry condoms with them. That means that as much as they hate being cheated at, they are smart to know that condoms can save their husbands and themselves from HIV.

What is the point of denying reality?

I am not for a second promoting adultery but I am commending pragmatism by women who do that. We should be concerning ourselves with the question whether or not inmates are having sex amongst themselves not whether the perception will be that they have second wives.

The VP went on to say that the Minister of Health was speaking in his personal capacity. I dare remind the VP, who was in attendance, that when the Minister spoke, he emphatically said he is speaking as a Minister of the Church and as a Minister of Health. Besides, the remarks were made at an official meeting where he sits in his capacity as a Minister of Health. Perhaps the church can claim that he was not representing the church. Besides, what is the test for determining the capacity in which Ministers speak? I need guidance, especially after a Minister has categorically stated that he is speaking as a Minister of the church and of Health.

The question that we need to ask is, are some prisoners engaging in sexual conduct? I submit yes, at least I have evidence to support my view. I have heard testimonies and read affidavits of inmates who were coerced into unprotected sex.

Inmates, or former inmates, in a friendly and private moment, not publicly, will tell you that sodomy is rampant in prisons. The Chief Justice has previously decided not to send a young convict to prison because he wanted to save him from HIV and AIDS in prison.

Judge Lot Moroka has also raised concerns about unsafe sex in prisons. The question, therefore is, does the VP and his cabinet, except of course the Minister of Health, think that inmates are not having sex? If so, they need to tell the nation what informs their position on the matter.

I do not buy the reason given that prisoners say they do not want condoms. While I do concede that some may not want them because they either abstain or prefer to be seen to be abstaining, I am of the firm view that some NEED them.

If the nation is to say to government, we do not want condoms, would government stop providing them. No! Why? In fact, I have never been asked whether I want condoms or not? But I see them at my disposal all the times, including in hotels and government offices, except for prisons.

It has to be noted that some of us are not promoting sodomy. We are only concerned about a reality that Botswana is not doing anything useful about it. I remember three (3) years ago I was addressing a group of Botswana Council of Churches priests on the subject of condoms in prisons; I was heartened to hear a sizeable number of them supporting supply of condoms to inmates.

In fact they were saying while we continue to preach for inmates to be born again/repent, let’s protect them from HIV. I thought that was progressive. But now I wish they also pray for our leaders to see it their way. We need to understand that this county does not only belong to Christians, traditionalists, or Muslims, but to all inhabitants, some of whom would want to live as they please, as long as their conduct is harmless to the next person. Tolerance and respect for ones choice is at the heart of DIGNITY.

Our prisons are not only for Christians or traditionalists, though Setswana expression, ma…a, shows that the practice has been there for a very long time. At any rate, what harm will government suffer by providing condoms to inmates? Those who are minded to use them, they will use them. Condoms are in their nature not meant to encourage people to have sex but to have safe sex. And that’s how the leadership has to see it.

Some say sodomy is against the law, I ask, which law? For what I know, our parliament has just passed a law, Employment Amendment Bill, showing that we have different sexual orientation.
The law is against dismissal on the basis of one’s sexual orientation. Even if I were to assume that our laws are anti-sodomy, I would rather be seen to be aiding commission of a crime by giving inmates condoms and thus saving lives, rather than being seen to be morally upright and losing lives by not giving inmates condoms.

Just in case you are wondering what I mean by they being no anti-sodomy law, the law that people seem to be relying upon talks about carnal knowledge that is against the order of nature. The question is, whose nature and how is it determined?

I argue that times have changed and circumstances have changed. It is not surprising that most countries, including Britain, who left us with the legacy of this law, have repealed it, as it is problematic and fuels discrimination, which His Excellency Mr F. G. Mogae is very much against, at least according to his recent local and international remarks.

Before I end, I urge cabinet, if indeed they deliberated and decided on the condoms in prisons matter, to take resolutions of experts at the NAC seriously.

The NAC is the august body on matters of HIV and AIDS, blessed with renowned and celebrated experts on HIV issues such as His Excellency Mr F. G. Mogae, the Minister of Health, and not to mention activists who work daily on the ground such as BONELA, BONASO, BOFWA and BONEPWA.

If the NAC resolutions are to be turned down without audience to its esteemed members, I cannot help but think we are an irrelevant body that has no influence in seeking to reverse the tide of HIV and AIDS. Attendance of NAC meetings, as noted by the VP lately, is dwindling and worrying. Perhaps members feel that they have no value or their input is inconsequential. At least that is how I presently feel.

I conclude by reminding the reader that Botswana is hailed for her good HIV interventions and programmes, but she remains the hub of HIV and AIDS in the world. Why?

*Ndadi is Executive Director of BONELA


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