Sexual Orientation and Human Rights in Botswana – The City of Gaborone’s role

Botswana stands out in the African context for its unique approach to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) issues. In addition to societal stigma, their sexual behaviour was criminalized by the penal code. Gaborone City Council did not have jurisdiction over the legalization of same-sex sexual activity or identity, but it did have an important voice that could be influential.

In the midst of cautious social change, the city council of Gaborone, the country’s capital and largest city, came out with an unexpected motion “Request[ing] the government to consider decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activities to support HIV/AIDS Programmes and Policies” before the Gaborone City Council. Three years later, subtle change gave way to radical transformation, and Botswana’s High Court declared sections of the penal code criminalising same-sex sexual activity to be in contravention of sections 3 (rights to liberty, privacy, dignity), 9 (right to privacy) and 15 (right to non-discrimination) of the Constitution and struck them down (Motshidiemang 2019).

The case of Gaborone can be introduced as one where a municipal government took action to speak openly and clearly about the human rights of a marginalized group, even though this was not in their area of jurisdiction. This action speaks to the role that municipal governments can take with respect to speaking on human rights issues, and raises questions about the role of democratically elected officials vis-à-vis minority rights, the relationship between federal and municipal governments, and the impact andappropriateness of making statements in areas beyond one’s jurisdiction.

Learning objectives

• Examine the role of city councils on social and human rights issues
• Understand the different actors and factors that led to legal and social changes to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights in Botswana
• Understand the experiences of LGBT people, men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW) in Botswana
• Consider when and whether city councils should make statements or take action beyond their formal jurisdiction
• Consider the inputs and impact of incremental versus one-step plans
• Reflect on the impact of ‘rhetorical’ actions (i.e., statements with no direct legal impact)
• Reflect on how majority-based governance systems should address human rights issues of minority populations