Dialogues of self-determination: Autonomy Project Pop-Up Market

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

In the heart of Botswana’s capital, statues of three of the country’s laureates; tribal chiefs Khama III of the Bangwato, Sebele I of the Bakwena, and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse tower. For a day these patriarchs made space for the space they dominate to become a woman-only safe zone for a day. The aim was to speak on issues relating to autonomy in these women’s lives. It was the Autonomy Pop Up Market, held at the Three Dikgosi Monument on the 25th of February.

Tigele Nlebesi is from Higher Heights for Girls, an organisation that is part of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) Collective, and one of the organisers of the Pop Up Market. She highlighted that the occasion was inspired by the dearth in events around Gaborone which offered safe spaces for women and the LGBT+ community.

“It was important for us to create a space where you could be comfortable expressing yourself verbally and physically without the threat of harassment and/or violence,” Nlebesi said. The event didn’t only serve as a space for autonomy dialogues, but also a place of economic empowerment where women entrepreneurs set up stalls to display and sell their products. The promotion of local creatives who set up stalls and sold their products came naturally once the collective decided they wanted to create this space.

At the heart of the matter members of the CAL Collective asked attendees what their definition of autonomy is and why they believe it is important. Women at the market shared intimate stories of being denied the right to practice their autonomy based on their gender and/or sexual orientation. Nlebesi spoke to the intersectional politics that were birthed from the conversations: That we are the same but not completely the same, the importance of recognising each other’s humanity, and the necessity to fight for the collective emancipation of all women and LGBT+ 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. They are painful stories which humanise the gender inequality statistics of Botswana. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development report of 2015, Botswana’s Gender inequality index ranks the country at 106 out of 155 countries.

Furthermore, the Botswana President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (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 still pulsate. According to the report there is also a gender power imbalance that translates into less autonomy and household decision making for women relative to men, as well as little sexual negotiation power.

Botswana has a long way to go in the realm of gender identity, and therein lies 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 on men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW) – neither of which are transgender specific.

Though the Pop Up Market had a lower than expected attendance, Nlebesi shared that those who were present 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 collective to look into creating more events of this nature.

The Autonomy Project aims to host more dialogue sessions with relevant panellists and an interactive audience.

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