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Does Botswana Court Win Mean Better Days for LGBTs in Africa?

Does Botswana Court Win Mean Better Days for LGBTs in Africa?


Although same-sex relations remain illegal in Botswana, a high court judge has ruled that an LGBT lobbying group has a constitutional right to challenge the country's antigay laws.

The High Court in Botswana, considered one of Africa's most democratic countries, has ruled that it was unconstitutional for a government agency to refuse to allow the nation's first LGBT rights advocacy organization to register as an officially recognized lobbying group, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

"The applications by LEGABIBO is [sic] not for the registration of their society for the purposes of having same sex relationships, but rather for agitating for legislative reforms so that same sex relationships would be decriminalized. In a democratic society, asking for a particular law to be changed is not a crime, neither is it incompatible with peace welfare and good order," wrote Judge Terrence Rannowane in his verdict.

Currently, same-sex relations can be punished by seven years in prison in Botswana. With the ruling, the group, called Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana, can go about the work of lobbying for decriminalization of homosexuality. Human rights organizations praised the judge's ruling.

"This decision is a major step forward in the struggle for equality and human rights in Botswana. We applaud the Botswana court for recognizing that denying LEGABIBO the permission to operate would strip the group's members of their basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly," said a statement issued by Human Rights First's chief advocacy counsel, Shawn Gaylord. "We urge the United States and the international community to support the work of African human rights defenders and civil society organizations, and to press the Botswana government to take the additional step of repealing its discriminatory laws."

A Long Way to Go in Africa

Africa has a long way to go toward respecting and protecting the civil and rights of its LGBT populations. Activists and human rights groups hope that with a Ugandan Constitutional Court overturning the country's short-lived "jail the gays" law in August and now the Botswana decision, a corner has been turned.

"The court's ruling is a significant victory for the LGBT community, not only in Botswana but elsewhere in Africa where LGBT groups have faced similar obstacles to registration," said Monica Tabengwa, a LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Botswana High Court decision is a milestone in the fight for LGBT people's right to equality under the law."

Still, the continent is one on which three countries, Somalia, Nigeria and Sudan, prescribe death as the penalty for the "crime" of homosexuality. Even when and where victories have been snatched from the jaws of defeat in Africa and anywhere antigay sentiment has thrived, the threat of resurgent homophobia is constant. Even now, there are plans to introduce an even more draconian "jail the gays" law by parliamentarians in Kampala, Uganda's capital.

LGBT Activists' Growing but Still Limited Influence

However, LGBT rights groups and human rights organizations morevover have been increasingly effective in leveraging the influence of nations that provide monetary and other types of aid to the developing countries of Africa and elsewhere toward improving the status of LGBT Africans.

Foremost among the groups from civil society that most wanted to participate in the White House's historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit held last summer were those focues on confronting homophobia and transphobia in Africa. The fact that they were largely sidelined during the week-long conference underscores the fact that there are limits to the infuence of LGBT and pro-equality lobbyists in both Africa and the U.S. -- despite claims to the contrary by purveyors of homophobia in both places.

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Thom Senzee