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Kasane, BOTSWANA- Stigma and discrimination, harrassment, violence,  bullying, abuse, lack of protection, lack of privavcy, limited access to sexual and reproductive health services and commodities, legal reforms; these are the words that were repeatedly echoed by the representatives of the marginalized groups while sharing their experiences with the members of parliament.

"Transgender people face stigma and discrimination from health and law enforcement services," Tshepo Ricki Kgositau.

"The fear of stigma and discrimination and violence results in secrecy and mental health problems with a high incidence of substance abuse and suicide amongst us, men who have sex with other men," Karabo Kesegofetse.

"We sex workers face many challenges in accessing commodities such as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP) because they are not easily available, made worse by the stigma and discrimination we face from health officials," Thandiwe Rannoko.

"Young people with disabilities experience a lack of privacy and poor treatment in healthcare settings," Sekgabo Maruping.

In May 2022, the United Nations Population Fund, in collaboration with the SADC Parliamentary Forum, the UN Resident Coordinator's Office, and the Botswana Parliament, held a first of its kind two-day strategic engagement with Members of Parliament to dialogue on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for  populations that are left behind. The dialogue brought together twenty-one (21) members of parliament, including ministers, from four parliamentary portfolio committees, namely; Health & HIV/AIDS; Caucus on Women; Youth, Sports, Arts & Culture; and the Parliament Select Committee on SDGs. Civil society organizations representing marginalized communities such as sex workers, men who have sex with other men, gays, trangender, lesbians, and people with disabilities were also a part of the dialogue, which had over 50 participants. 

The dialogue’s main objective was to identify opportunities for parliamentarians to advance SRHR and HIV/AIDS related services for populations that are left behind, specifically people with disabilities and key populations.

The Country Office's engagement with the parliamentarians builds on the acknowledgment of their role as powerful change agents for development — including debating critical development issues across organs of parliament; reviewing and passing inclusive laws; approving, appropriating, and monitoring the implementation of national budgets; oversight and accountability in the implementation of policies and programs; and holding government and stakeholders accountable for the delivery of development programs. 

Speaking at the meeting, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Hon. Pono Moatlhodi reaffirmed the Botswana Parliament's commitment to work with national and international stakeholders to support Botswana's attainment of SDG targets, in particular health and health-related SDGs. He said the dialogue provided an opportunity to bring to the surface social issues which result in some members of the community being left behind and called for open-mindedness and a willingness to engage and collaborate to resolve the issues.

Speaking on behalf of UNFPA, the interim Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, Dr. Bannet Ndyanabangi highlighted that there has been a rise in inequality around the world, and underscored that parliamentarians, as representatives of the population, can champion change and create a safe environment for those left behind. He said this can be done through ensuring there is adequate financing, generation of useful data on the need and response, and safeguarding the wellbeing and SRH rights of these populations, with rights being guaranteed in laws and policies and translated into programming.

He further pointed out that it is vital to respond to the needs of people who require information and services and commended the SADC Parliamentary Forum (PF) for the development of regional minimum standards for the protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights for key populations, which are a useful guide for parliamentarians to exercise their mandate and safeguard the rights of those who face exclusion in society, ensuring that all people are included in programs. 

Dr. Ndyanabangi reaffirmed UNFPA's commitment to support the Republic of Botswana, including the National Assembly on the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights for all. 

Echoing the same sentiments, Mr. Alankar Malvir, UNAIDS Country Director in Botswana, who was speaking on behalf of the Resident Coordinator, said the dialogue provided an opportunity for lawmakers to promote a more enabling environment for key populations to access rights and services within a human rights environment, citing this as crucial to the future of sustainable development. 

He noted that Botswana will be the first country in Africa to achieve the 95/95/95 goals eight years before the deadline, though there are still miles to go to close the prevention gap, so that the achievements are not diminished by new infections. He further said that enduring inequalities currently render HIV services inaccessible, unaffordable, or inadequate, and that political will and leadership are fundamental to ensuring equal access and the inclusion of marginalized people.

Parliamentarians are well placed to create a more enabling environment for key populations to access services through legislation and public openness. They can enact legislation and oversee budgets, identifying inefficiencies and doing more with less. "Parliamentarians can shape legal and public opinion through promoting equality and non-discrimination; and engaging with civil society organizations (CSOs) and human rights defenders to advocate for the rights of key populations, using the media and other platforms to promote positive messages to reduce stigma, and to become public champions of SRHR rights for all," concluded Mr. Malvir .

Boemo Sekgoma, Secretary General, SADC Parliamentary Forum presented and outlined how the SADC Minimum Standards for Key Populations provide comprehensive guidelines to provide a minimum threshold of acceptable protection to key populations and noted that they are readily implementable in the SADC context and policy environment, and require domestication. 

"The protection of key populations needs to be looked at in a holistic manner, bearing in mind commitments relating to Sustainable Development Goal 3, Africa Agenda 2063 and regional targets," she said.

A robust discussion from members of parliament reflected an interest in developing a greater understanding of the challenges faced by these populations and sexual and reproductive health and rights in general. While some parliamentarians noted that these were difficult issues to discuss, most of them appreciated the discussions, acknowledging that they equipped them with the right information and placed them in a better position to be key advocates and change agents in advancing SRH & R.

"As representatives of our communities, we must move beyond personal beliefs to represent all constituents and to strengthen support and political will for programs that are inclusive of the marginalized population," said Nnaniki Makwinja, member of parliament.

Winter Mmolotsi, member of parliament, said: "We need to find ways to engage with key populations and bridge the gap between policymakers and those they serve."

A lot of key actions emanated from the two-day discussions. In closing, members of parliament agreed that the dialogue demonstrated that investing in the SRHR needs of their communities has far-reaching benefits. It saves lives; contributes to poverty reduction and socio-economic development; and secures the dignity and rights of individuals. They noted that the capacity-building engagements with parliamentarians are therefore critical towards ensuring that they are well-informed and can actively debate issues aimed at enhancing equitable access to SRHR for all in Botswana. They reaffirmed their commitments to advocate for SRHR for their communities.

Some of the key actions from the dialogue sessions included:

Actions that Parliamentarians can take to advance SRHR for people with disabilities

  • Ensure that there is up-to-date, disaggregated data on people with disabilities that is regularly reported;
  • create opportunities for inclusion and the active engagement of CSOs representing people with disabilities in the development and revision of policies and in the Constitutional Review; 
  • Ensure that laws fully protect people with disabilities by passing the Disability Law;
  • Facilitate the timely implementation, monitoring, and reporting of programs and policies;
  • Ensure that budgets allocated to development projects are effectively used.
  • Advocate for universally accessible facilities for people with disabilities as part of the grading review;

Actions that Parliamentarians can take to advance SRHR for key populations 

  • Advocate for disaggregated data and an inclusive data ecosystem capable of capturing critical information about key populations.
  • Advocate for the full engagement and participation of key populations in policy development and revision.
  • Collaborate with networks of key constituency populations, as well as religious and traditional leaders, to hold public dialogues to challenge and reduce stigma and discrimination.
  • Advocate for a review of the Penal Code's sex work provision.
  • Advocating for increased domestic funding for programmes for key populations, diversifying funding opportunities with clear budget lines; 
  • Create Private Member’s Bills to create an enabling environment for key populations; 
  • Tailor capacity-strengthening activities for parliamentarians on SRHR issues for key populations with technical assistance from UNFPA and other partners.
  • This dialogue was a first step in the journey towards partnership with members of parliament and advocating for equal rights for all. UNFPA will continue working with parliamentarians  through follow up meetings with different parliamentary portfolio committees, assist parliamentarians to draft key motions to table before parliament on SRHR issues and continue to provide capacity building support to ensure that all members of parliament are well versed in SRHR for better advocacy.