Local Human Rights lawyer, Uyapo Ndadi, is the view of that our government is in denial when it comes to issues affecting sex workers and Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex community.
He was speaking at a Policy dialogue meeting hosted by Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV and AIDS (BONELA) this week in Gaborone. The meeting had attracted stakeholders from among various organisations, Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana, Men for Health and Gender Justice, Sisonke and Nkaikela which deal with key populations.
The theme was ‘Amplifying voices of key populations: Why decriminalization is key to getting to zero new HIV infections.’
Section 155 of the Penal Code of Botswana states that, “Every person who- knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution; or in any public place persistently solicits or importunes for immoral purposes, is guilty of an offence; and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction under this Section the court may, in addition to any term of imprisonment awarded, sentence the offender to corporal punishment.”
This, according to Ndadi, means that the law does not criminalise the selling or buying of sexual services per se. In addition, sex work is in effect criminalised by provisions that prohibit a wide range of activities associated with the act of prostitution.
The Penal Code cap 08, 01 sections 176, 179, and 182 have been applied in courts against women for offences including common nuisance, idling and disorderly persons.
“The spirit of denial is going to kill us. We should deal with the elephant in the room. Sex workers have been there since time immemorial,” said Ndadi. His take is that sex workers, just like everyone else, have a right to freedom of movement. He said laws should be kept away from people’s bedrooms.
A sex worker from Sisonke said that they were often harassed by clients, raped by both clients and the police and treated inhumanely. “They even take our money,” she said, adding that they are refused condoms at government clinics. Other facilities they need include lubricants, which she said are not also availed to them.
Meanwhile, sex workers are charged P100 for idling. One of the gay men said that they were abused by married men who care less about having sex without a condom. He added that they face huge stigma from their families as they tend to disown them. “If I don’t carry condoms, some of the men, especially married, won’t bother providing them,” he said.
United Nations Development Programme specialist HIV/AIDS, Gender, Health and Human Rights William Bapati said that human rights must be enjoyed by all people and also respected. He said Botswana as part of the United Nations should adhere to the principles. He added that as the country launched Treat All last year, it did not exclude sex workers or gays.
“Some of our laws are an impediment to fighting HIV/AIDS,” he said. Bapati stated that sexual orientation has nothing to do with competence or professionalism. “Being gay is not a lifestyle but what people are born with,” he said.
FHI 360 Programme Officer Setshwano Gaosenkwe said that Batswana should speak against stigma and decriminalisation of key populations. “These stem from social and moral obligations but we must let people walk confidently and freely without having their rights violated. Our major enemy is the existing laws that enforce stigma and discrimination,” she said.
People must repent-Pastor
For his part, Apostle Godknows Robbie of Christ Centred Life Ministries said that the role of the church is to save souls and to preach that where there is evil and iniquity, people must repent. He was against the notion that sex is work, saying that it is not work or business, but a practice. His take is that when sex workers are beaten and attacked, it is only an indication that they are risking their lives. He does not see ‘women who are sex workers living beyond 40 and 60 years old.’
“What are they teaching their daughters? The church is against prostitution,” he said, citing Leviticus 19:29, Judges 16:1, Proverbs 7:9-12, and 1 Corinthians 6:15 for reference. He said sex workers should work for Ipelegeng and stop putting their lives in danger.
He said both gays and sex workers should know that God loves them and wants them to repent. Apostle Robbie also said that organisations were advocating for these practices because of the pressure from donors, saying that studies have shown that majority of sex workers were foreigners.
“Are we going to fight for laws based on foreign influence?” he asked. The pastor’s statements did not go well with majority of sex workers who attended the event.
“Men of God, some of our clients are men of God and they get very angry when we miss their calls or not return them. When we are together, they don’t even mention God. All they want is sex or for us to stimulate them,” said one of them.
The other one said that churches should preach love and leave judgment to God. The man of God however stipulated that the Bible is the standard and that on behalf of the church he encourages sex workers to come for counseling, adding that support is not just money but spiritual empowerment.
BONELA Executive Director Cindy Kelemi refuted accusations that they are under pressure to please donors, saying they were only advocating for people who were stigmatised. “We have to speak against laws that hinder and violate the rights of our people.”