Slowly changing the minds and lives of people in Botswana

By Motlatsi Motseoile

 For Caine Youngman, the work of caring and standing up for queer people came from instinct rather than obligation. He was a young Motswana, taking note of the rising levels of intolerance, violence and discrimination he and others who identified like him were experiencing and which was being reported in the media and he knew he had to do something. What that something was, was not initially clear. The internal conflict he dealt with, as he met with others in secret gatherings would lead him to his answer. 

Youngman is the Head of Policy and Legal Advocacy for LEGABIBO, Botswana’s first legally-registered LGBTQ organisation, a feat that came through the courts and not to be taken lightly. It’s a position he prides himself in and one which has placed him at the forefront of various interactions with the laws of Botswana, which have required reform since his days as a young man. “We’d been gathering as a group of like-minded people in secret and one of the contentious issues was whether we should continue doing this in secret or come out in public – the formation of the organisation. But knowing that there were people suffering made me decide that it had to be public” he says about the early days and formation of the organisation that has made him a world renowned activist. Youngman chose the high road, opening the home he shared with his parents to myriads of young LGBTQ people who might have needed a place to stay, a shoulder to cry on, someone to defend them from violence and anything else he could offer to help them along their journey. He credits, quite greatly, his parents who welcomed these strangers into their home and called them ‘his children’. 

The formation of LEGABIBO involved two years of strife and toil, where they were required to draft a Constitution that also required them to include a glossary of terms. That two years would seem to come to naught when the government of the time still refused to register this organisation as they believed its intents were against the law. It was the case of Kanane v the State. Youngman says, that would provide some guiding light and perhaps a way forward for them – where in that judgement it was held that Botswana was not ready to decriminalise homosexuality and that LGBTQ people did not constitute a group requiring protection. He knew then that their path had to be one of seeking legal reform and the registration of this organisation was the way there. Today, LEGABIBO is a legally-recognised organisation that is involved in work that is slowly changing the minds and lives of people in Botswana. One of those changes, apart from the emergence of various LGBTQ organisations, is the willingness of government departments to work with and include them in processes – something that was unheard of at one point. He mentions that there is now even policy that explicitly states that parliament employees cannot be dismissed from employment on the basis of their sexual orientation – this he considers to be a victory, one that should be replicated in other parts of society. 

He is quick to admit that this change is not finite, “my work has shown me that people are ignorant of the law and our leaders want that to remain. Because when people know what the law is, when they know what their rights are, then they can question things and they can hold them to account”. This has informed their strategy – to work on community engagement and education more than fighting for the changing of legal frameworks. 

The work he is involved in has not come without personal sacrifice – he outlines that his mental health has been the biggest casualty in all this. For nine years he has lived with depression and one of his personal hopes is that activists like himself may have more mental health support. “We did not know that taking on this work, fighting for the rights of others would also come with dealing with their emotions and pains and that has an impact”, he says. He believes many others like him are dealing with mental health issues that might be untreated because we do not prioritise it. 

One of Youngman’s hopes, as he looks to the future is that there may be more inclusive legislation in Botswana that may offer more and better protection to him and his life partner, allow him to expand his family and have children and give legal recognition to his union. He says he is proud of the work they have done as it has given birth to more activists – many of the seasoned and rising LGBTQ activists in Botswana can credit LEGABIBO as their formative and learning ground. He sternly believes that education, of human rights, holds the remedy to inequality, not just for LGBTQ people but all marginalised people. “We cannot want to be included in systems that once excluded us, that is not change but we must seek to change those systems that they may never exclude others” he says. He believes the education system ought to prioritise teaching, at a basic level, human rights to all. 

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