Dialogues of self-determination at the Autonomy Project Pop Up Market

Does living in a patriarchal society deny women the right to autonomy and self-determination? A pertinent question that was explored at The Autonomy Project Pop Up Market – the first women only event of its kind in the heart of Gaborone.

In the heart of Botswana’s capital – where three of Botswana’s laureates Khama III, Sebele I, and Bathoen I statues towered over a space that, for one day, became a woman only safe zone to speak on issues relating to autonomy. The Autonomy Pop Up Market, held at the Three Dikgosi Monument on February 25th.

In an interview with Tigele Nlebesi, one of the organizers of the Pop Up Market from Higher Heights for Girls, an organization that if part of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) Collective, the occasion was inspired by the dearth in events around Gaborone which offered safe spaces for women and the LGBTQIA+ community. “It was important for us to create a space were you could be comfortable expressing yourself verbally and physically without the threat of harassment and/or violence.” She added. The event didn’t only serve as a space on autonomy dialogues, but also a place of economic empowerment where women entrepreneurs set up stalls to display and sell their products. As Nlebesi notes, the promotion of local creatives who set up stalls and sold their products just came naturally once the collective decided they wanted to create this space.

Coming to the heart of the matter, the members of CAL Collective went around asking attendees what their definition of autonomy is and why they believe is it important. Highlighted by Nlebesi, she noted that women at the market shared intimate stories of being denied the right to practice their autonomy based on their gender and/or sexual orientation. She further acknowledged the intersectional politics that birthed from the conversations – that we are the same but not completely the same – and it is important to recognize each other’s humanity, struggle and to fight for the collective emancipation of all women and LGBTQIA+ individuals.

The intimate stories surrounding autonomy practice during the event encompassed discrimination they faced in public health institutions, gender based violence with their intimate partners and various forms of exclusion from their family members. Painful stories which humanize the gender inequality numbers of Botswana. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development report (2015), Botswana’s Gender inequality index stands at 0.480, ranking 106 out of 155 countries in the index.

Further, The Botswana PEPFAR Gender Analysis denotes that gender norms create barriers of access to sexual reproductive health rights. The report notes that there is a shift of more liberal social dynamics, however gender norms that influence culture identity pulsate. The report notes that there is a gender power imbalance that translates into less autonomy and household decision making for women relative to men, and little sexual negotiation power.

Botswana also has a long waste to go in the realm of gender identity, as there lies for an opportunity for institutions to acknowledge the existence of the transgender community, and create inclusivity in their services. In the public health sector, the Botswana PEPFAR Gender Analysis notes that transgender people are left out of interventions, as the focus is Men who have sex with men (MSM), women who have sex with women (WSW) but not transgender specific.

 

Though the Pop Up Market had a low attendance, Nlebesi shared that the attendees found the dialogues enlightening as well as affirming. “We often take for granted how important it is to hear similar struggles to yours, especially because we are so used to being gas-lighted by our loved ones and even more so by our oppressors.” She said, adding that such feedback from the attendees is encouraging and motivates the entire collective to continuously create events of this manner.

The Autonomy Project aims to create more dialogue sessions with panelists suited with an interactive audience in the course of the year.