On Sunday 15th March 2009, the esteemed Minister of Labour and Home affairs was heard and seen on Botswana Television saying that whilst touring prisons, no inmate had come forth and him to provide condoms in prisons. The Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) is alarmed by the content and effect of this statement as it is potentially misleading to the public regarding prevention needs of people in correctional and rehabilitation facilities. Furthermore, the statement may compromise an ongoing dialogue among stakeholders aimed at having a comprehensive national response that targets and plugs gaps in our national response to HIV and AIDS.
The statement, with greatest respect, lacks a proper contextual value as the charge is based on personal observations. We observe that on these tours, the Minister is accompanied by an entourage and that the tours are as public as they can be. In our view, this is not a safe and confidential platform where prisoners can meaningfully engage the Minister regarding their needs. It is to be noted that the Penal Code of Botswana is currently interpreted to criminalize same sex sexual acts. In all fairness, who could expect a person incarcerated for an offense against the laws of the country to ask a government official to provide them with condoms? Interpreted in the usual sense, this would sound like the prisoners are asking the Minister to assist them to commit a crime. We posit that the Government of Botswana is quite aware of same sex sexual acts between inmates in prisons and the Government has been engaged on various levels by BONELA and other stakeholders on HIV prevention in prisons including the distribution of condoms and this process has not borne any fruits. This statement unnecessarily thrusts this issue into the limelight and with controversial nature of issues surrounding homosexuality, it becomes difficult to reverse your opinion and begin to openly support initiatives towards prevention in prisons, including the provision of condoms.
Public leaders are leaders of public opinion and as such, they may mislead society by expressing personal sentiments regarding issues of national importance. As a politician, it is also prudent for the Honorable Minister exercise caution not add political leverage to the issue. In our view, the Minister’s comments are disappointing and misplaced, as, currently, research around the issues of HIV and sexual minorities (men who have sex with men, women who have sex with women, inmates/prisoners and sex workers) and the vulnerability of these populations are increasingly becoming recognized as contributing to the rate of HIV infection in general. Studies so far conducted regionally and Global indicate that many persons who have sex with other same sex persons while incarcerated may not necessarily be homosexuals. Some of these persons practice same sex sexual relationships only for the duration of their incarceration and return to heterosexual sex once they are released back into society where often, wives, girlfriends or husbands and boyfriends will be waiting for them. BONELA reiterates its concern that failure to acknowledge the existence of same sexual relations between prisoners is not only an act of hiding behind one’s hand, but it is also tantamount to refusing to protect the public from HIV infection.
As Botswana prioritize strategies towards preventing new infections, our country is moving with the world trends and now beginning to address the lethal multi concurrent sexual partnerships. The key question that we are now asking each one of our brothers and sisters is ‘who is in your sexual network (break the chain….) Considering this paradigm we perhaps need to honestly confront ourselves with the possible truth that some of the prisoners we refuse to protect with appropriate prevention methods while incarcerated may ultimately make it into our sexual networks and might be bringing with them the risk of HIV infection.
It is perhaps important to ask ourselves what the basis for the Minister’s statement is. As it suggests there is a bigger ongoing dialogue among stakeholders regarding this issue. However, the Honorable Minister’s comments places more weight on dismissing HIV prevention advocacy efforts by stakeholders rather than the specifics of HIV infection as it relate to prison settings (overcrowding, lack of condoms etc) and the how transmission from prison inmates can translate back to the general society out of prison, how it impact on the HIV and AIDS interventions and programming and measures that can be taken to mitigate the adverse effects in HIV prevention in prisons or lack thereof.
The HIV transmission situation in Botswana prisons is not well documented; as a result, there is currently no evidence to inform program developers of the needs to be addressed. We strongly recommend that research be conducted in a manner that is not threatening to inmates, without the presence of officials to ensure that prisoners are able to honestly express their issues and their needs. It should on the basis of facts gleaned from research that the public can be engaged. We further urge the state to recognize its duty to guide public policy rather than hide behind lengthy processes of consultation with the already biased public as a result of the negative and preemptive comments made again by public officials.
Furthermore, Botswana can learn a lot in terms of how other countries in the region, such as Lesotho, who have the same provisions in the Penal Code as Botswana are affording to provide condoms in prisons as an HIV preventative measure, to adequately respond to HIV and AIDS as a country.