Botswana’s Minister of Labour and Home Affairs (MLHA), Letlhogonolo Siele, has been accused of being insensitive, and of abusing his public status by making a statement whose potential for misinterpretation was rather obvious.
The sensitive issue of whether people in correctional and rehabilitation facilities should be provided with condoms to prevent HIV infections inside the country’s jails is prominent and demands debate.
Furthermore, concern has been expressed that Siele’s statement could jeopardize ongoing dialogue among stakeholders aimed at having a comprehensive national response that targets and plugs gaps in Botswana’s national response to HIV and AIDS.
A strongly worded response from the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) expressed frustration at Siele’s utterances, saying that it undermines gains already achieved in the fight to reverse the effects of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
“The Minister’s words are disappointing and misplaced, as currently research around issues of HIV and sexual minorities (men who have sex with men, women who have sex with women, inmates/prisoners and sex workers) and the vulnerability of these populations, shows they are increasingly becoming recognized as contributing to the rate of HIV infection in general,” said BONELA.
Moreover, it has been found that some of the people who engage in same sex sexual relationships, may not be homosexuals, and that they indulge only for the duration of their incarceration only to return to heterosexual sex after their release back into society, where often their wives, girlfriends or husbands and boyfriends would be waiting for them.
On Sunday, March 15, 2000 on BTV evening news, Siele was shown making a statement to the effect that whilst touring prisons recently, and accompanied by officers from his ministry, he never came across any inmate who indicated to him that there was concern or need for condoms in the prisons.
He said in Setswana, “Ga ke tsamaya le dikgolegelo ga ke ise ke kopane le legolegwa lepe le kopa dikhondomo. Ke utlwa bangwe ba bua gore magolegwa a tlhoka dikhondomo.”
Literally translated that means…”as I was touring the prisons, not a single inmate came forth to ask for condoms or at least expressed the need for such, we all hear that outside the prisons”.
These words did not go down well with some NGOs dealing with HIV and AIDS issues. One that responded immediately was BONELA who said that Public leaders are leaders of public opinion and that, as such, they may mislead society by expressing personal sentiments regarding issues of national importance.
“The Minister’s statement, with all due respect, lacks a proper contextual value as it is based on personal observations,” said BONELA.
An observation was made to the effect that, in his tours, Siele was accompanied by an entourage and that it would appear that the tours were “as public as they can be”.
In addition, it was highlighted that, as a politician, it is prudent that the minister exercised caution and not add political leverage to the issue.
That is especially true given the notion held of the responsibilities thought to be falling within the jurisdiction of the Ministry overseeing the purported rehabilitation of those who have crossed the law and found themselves languishing in the gallows.
On account of the fact that Botswana laws are currently interpreted to criminalize same sex intercourse, Siele’s statement amounted to punching below the belt.
Thus, Uyapo Ndadi, an Attorney at BONELA, asks, “Otherwise who, in all fairness, would expect a person incarcerated for an offence against Botswana laws to ask a government official to provide them with condoms?”
Wouldn’t it then have amounted to asking the Minister to assist them to commit a crime?
Government is aware of the reality of same sex acts between inmates in prisons and Siele has been engaged on various levels by BONELA and other stakeholders on HIV prevention in prisons, including the distribution of condoms. However, the process has not borne fruit, according to Ndadi.
The judgment delivered by High Court Judge, Justice Dibotelo, in 2001 is cited as giving an explicit description of the “hazard” that the country’s prison system had become.
The case involved a sixteen year old boy charged with manslaughter, State v Skila (1) BLR 378 (HC).
“I should point out that it is well known that this country is being ravaged and its population decimated by the AIDS scourge and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the courts to be oblivious of the fact that very young offenders who are sent to prison invariably mix with hardened HIV positive or AIDS rapists in our prisons, which invariably leads to the not hard to imagine consequences in regard to such young offenders,” stated Dibotelo.
Prefacing his sentencing, Dibotelo said, “Although this state of affairs should not be the determining factor whether to send young offenders to prison, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore that reality when sentences of imprisonment are passed on young first offenders, especially as there is an acute shortage of prison accommodation.”
BONELA maintains the view that failure to acknowledge the existence of same sex relations between prisoners “is not only an act of hiding behind one’s hand,” but it also amounts to refusal to protect not only those incarcerated, but even the general public from HIV infection.