Monica Tabengwa (51) is a human-rights activist from Botswana. She grew up with seven siblings and a single mother, became a lawyer and has spent decades working for LGBTIQ+ rights, including with Pan Africa ILGA and Human Rights Watch.
“Growing up in a big household full of males helps you understand what patriarchy means,” says Monica Tabengwa, who consistently opposed the systematic gender-based discrimination she encountered early on in life. “My mother used to say I was lazy and didn’t want to do the things expected of girls, but I just refused. I would argue with her that I wouldn’t do them unless my brothers did so too. I never thought about it, but that was already a feminist approach,” she says in recounting her childhood with five brothers and two sisters.
At school she hated the home economics classes with their cooking and sewing lessons. She far preferred to do technical drawing or woodworking. “I was bit of a tomboy,” she remarks. In Botswana in the 1970s, sexuality was never discussed and there were no LGBT role models. “I only knew that I was different,” she says thoughtfully. “You also realize, as you grow more conscious, that you can’t just openly be who you are, because it’s not allowed. A lot of things are expected of you. And being different is not one of them.”
Tabengwa grew up in a traditional Christian family. She didn’t have to attend services, but God and Christian values played important roles in the household. “Being a proper well-brought up girl had its obligations. The combination of patriarchy, culture and socialization makes you a person that’s mightily confused, and basically in a closet.” After studying law and finding a job, she moved out on her own. And her activism began. “I was very active in LEGABIBO, the organization for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in Botswana [editor’s note: “Legabibo” is the corresponding acronym]”, she says. “I brought a much needed focus on LGBTI issues and visibility for LEGABIBO.” And she discovered a way to keep her professional and private lives separate.
Tabengwa’s coming-out proceeded step by step and was connected with the decision to direct the NGO. “The first thing about coming out for me was knowing that the whole country was going to label me as gay or lesbian or whatever. And I didn’t care, because it was important to me to represent this particular group of people, to use my skills as a lawyer and to advocate for their rights.” She then adds, “I’m a lesbian. I have been for a long time now. Self-defined and unapologetic about it.”
Her path to activism
Tabengwa’s early family life and her opposition to the traditional role for women are partly responsible for her activism. “All this constant policing of a woman’s body is something I have experienced personally, I watched it within my own family and it was always unfair. That made me an activist, that was the start.” In addition to her work for women’s rights, people with HIV, and people needing support in general, she turned her attention to LGBTIQ+ rights.
It began simply with an informal self-help group. “When I found out about them, I decided that what they needed was a lawyer, someone with the skills and the know-how to get them registered first of all, and then to help bring the kind of visibility that would enable them to get money and to work.” And that is precisely what happened, which is why some people say she founded the group, although that is not entirely correct. As she puts it, “I enabled a group of people to acquire a legal identity to get support and funding.”
In 2007 Tabengwa went to court for the first time to petition for the decriminalization of homosexuality. “It was an amazing time, in the sense that by then a lot of people were talking about how the different countries had inherited these British colonial laws that criminalized sexual identity or same-sex behavior, and how these laws or the existence of these laws had an impact – basically to deny an entire community of people the right to be themselves.”
The movement not only spread through Africa but also reverberated throughout the Commonwealth. Lawyers from all over the world met to discuss approaches to decriminalization. “I was always one of the lawyers who was invited to these meetings to think about how to change the laws, and one of the ways was going to court, which fell onto my plate,” recalls Tabengwa, who was also involved in Yogyakarta+10. But the people who took legal action were often intimidated and withdrew their petitions.
First successes in the struggle for LGBTIQ+ rights
The situation in Botswana was such that homosexuality was illegal but the law was rarely or never applied. The occasion for decriminalization came in 1998 when two men were apprehended having consensual sex. “They went to court, but instead of defending the criminal matter they petitioned and said the penal code was counter to the provisions of the constitution which states that every person in Botswana is entitled to fundamental human rights and the right to live free of discrimination,” explains Tabengwa enthusiastically.
“The only issue became whether criminalizing consensual acts between two males was proper in a country that says it is a democracy, respects human rights, and has signed a series of treaties declaring that human rights are universal. So that was the challenge.” The case went from the High Court all the way to the Court of Appeal. The judgment said the law appeared to be discriminatory, but that societal views also needed to be taken into consideration. The court decided that the Botswana society was not yet ready to accept decriminalization, but an initial step had been taken.
That was also when Tabengwa left Botswana. “I felt I had grown out of it, LEGABIBO had expanded and didn’t need me there,” she says. She first worked for Human Rights Watch in Kenya, then for Pan Africa ILGA, and finally for the Hivos international cooperation organization in Zimbabwe. She currently works for the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) as a policy specialist for LGBT in Africa, and lives in South Africa.
Although not residing in Botswana she has closely followed developments in her country and served as a legal advisor for her former organization. That included the court case to register Legabibo in 2016. The country’s Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s 2014 ruling that the decision by the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs not to register Legabibo as an association was unconstitutional, and affirmed the organization’s right to register and operate in the country.
“The outcome was amazing. I was there in court when they read the judgment, which was like a dream – a dream come true.” For Tabengwa, “it was like having a child and watching that child grow up and graduate. So I had graduated in my life situation, and the organization had been recognized. It was amazing.”
LEGABIBO also filed an amicus curiae brief in the case to decriminalize homosexuality. In a ground-breaking decision in June 2019, Botswana’s High Court declared the criminalization of same-sex relationships unconstitutional. In the vague formulation of section 164 of the penal code, acts “against nature” were punishable by up to seven years in prison. The subsequent paragraph also penalized attempts at such acts with up to five years. These laws were hardly ever applied, however. The court found that the constitutional right to a private life covers basic personal decisions such as how and with whom one chooses to have consensual sex.
Wishes for the future
Tabengwa is convinced that this decision has far-reaching consequences for other countries. “They have all these laws in the different countries, especially in the Commonwealth countries. The laws are the same, with the same words: traditions, family values, Christianity or some other religion… And also the same people: religious leaders, traditional fundamentalists, and then others who are just intolerant and homophobic.”
Tabengwa wishes for society to accept the ruling. But government recognition alone will not achieve this. “That kind of reform does not carry the whole community with you. You get a judgment and people do not change along with it,” she notes. Systematic discrimination at health centers, schools and other public institutions has continued. More education, and especially education about sexuality, is needed for change to take place. She also wishes for change that will enable religious and political leaders to come out as well. “I would like to see them free to be themselves or just free to support LGBTI issues openly.”
Asked how donors can support these developments, Tabengwa laughs and says, “Just a minute, let me pull out my list.” She then says, “In southern African countries we all have particular things that are very special to how we solve problems, how we do things, how we express ourselves, how we come out – understanding these is the respect that donors need to integrate into their work.”
Funding usually comes with a specific agenda, but to be effective it needs to be based on local solutions. “The more politicians see local people speak about these issues, the less antagonistic they are. Because for a long time we were told this is a western agenda, these are gay Americans or Europeans coming to destroy African values. But we know this is not true.”
It’s a matter of understanding that locals know best what they need. They have to participate on an equal basis in designing, monitoring and evaluating the programs – in short, in the work in general. Donors should enable this type of access for people from the Global South. Tabengwa is convinced that “it’s important to work together and learn from each other. A lot of the time we hear only bad things, but there are many positive things happening and donors have ways of getting things out so people can hear about them.”
- Yogyakarta Principles plus 10: Additional Principles and State Obligations on the Application of International Human Rights to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics to Complement the Yogyakarta Principles of 2007; see
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