Gaborone, Botswana — Bokaa is a village located approximately 50 kilometres from Botswana's capital city, Gaborone. Like many other villages in Botswana, Bokaa has a chief commonly referred to in Setswana as Kgosi, and each chief has a traditional gathering place known as the Kgotla.
Traditionally, Setswana culture does not allow women and girls to enter the Kgotla wearing trousers or pants, and requires them to wear dresses and skirts. Most Batswana observe this rule with great respect and accept it as common cultural practice across the country.
I have been attending meetings at different Kgotlas around the country since I was ten-years-old. Having the utmost respect for Setswana culture, I can confidently say that I have never entered a Kgotla wearing trousers.
However, in Bokaa the chief's Kgotla and office are located in the same compound as Bokaa's only police post (station). Although there is a fence and independent gate separating the Kgotla from this station and other government offices, women are prohibited from visiting the premises wearing trousers, and are often sent back home if they are wearing anything other than a dress or skirt.
I was recently working on one of the Bokaa Westland farms assisting in building a pit latrine for an elderly woman. As anyone would expect, I was wearing overalls, the most practical attire for the somewhat arduous and grubby task. Due to my involvement in crime prevention initiatives in the area, Bokaa's Police Commander called me, requesting I come to his office for a brief meeting.
It was already dusk so I had to head straight to the police post, in order to return to the farm before dark. On arrival, Bokaa's Chief, Kgosi Sue Mosinyi, met me with disproval and was very upset to see me wearing trousers. I tried to explain to him that I was not going to the Kgotla, but instead on my way to the police post for a meeting with the Commander.
Chief Mosinyi remained indifferent, proceeded to ‘pardon' me and gave me a stern warning never to show up there again wearing trousers. I was shocked and incredulous, as I had never experienced such an unreasonable response from any other chief.
However, in Bokaa this has been an on-going contention. In a similar incident last month, I was part of an all-night patrol with the police and other volunteers, many of whom are women. The day before the patrol, we had a long debate with officials explaining it would be both impractical and too cold to patrol wearing dresses and skirts. Our reasoning was overruled and they forbade us from entering the premises wearing trousers.
This rule forces the female Cluster Police volunteers from Bokaa Police Post to carry out their daily duties wearing skirts and dresses, because they have to meet every day at that premises before dispersing into the village to patrol. However, Chief Mosinyi has made an exception for the official and permanent female police officers, by permitting them to enter the premises wearing trousers because “it is part of their uniform.”
Concerned about these restrictions, I had a meeting with Chief Mosinyi. I asked him why this rule, which traditionally applies only to the Kgotla, is problematically extended to public spaces and law enforcement offices that should be accessible to anyone at all times, regardless of their attire.
Although I emphasised that a fence clearly separates the offices from the Kgotla, he explained, “The Kgotla, his office and the police offices are one and the same thing”, adding that as the Chief it is his duty to preserve our culture and to ensure that females remain and behave like females.
He went on to explain that he also makes exceptions for women in emergencies, and other women recognised as outsiders, who do not reside in the village. Chief Mosinyi said he is especially strict with female villagers and sends them back home if they show up wearing trousers, because they are well aware of this practice in his village.
However, his justification is not only inadequate for me, but also problematic for many women who have the right to unrestricted access to the premises.
Firstly, the glaring problem is that it restricts women's access to Bokaa's only police post. This poses some serious problems in a country with high rates of domestic violence and rape, low rates of reporting, where victim blaming is rife and where domestic violence is often dismissed and trivialised as a ‘family issue'. Women residing in Bokaa are undoubtedly aware of this cultural practice, but are they aware of their constitutional rights, and that the undue extension of this practice impinges on these rights?
I hold the Kgotla in high regard, as I believe it is one of the oldest forms of democracy that maintains peace in my country. I can respect the rule that prohibits me from entering the Kgotla, but I cannot accept it when this rule is extended to public spaces, especially spaces that people seek out for security and protection. It is unreasonable, unjust and discriminatory.
Bokaa's Chief and others across the country need to recognise the physical boundary that separates the public offices from the Kgotla as well as the boundary of tradition. Either the premises allow for appropriate and equitable access, or the police and government offices must move elsewhere.
When custodians of culture impose their own biases, and when these practices disproportionately hinder the human rights of others, the meaning of our culture and democratic rights are undermined. This applies to many customary laws that persist across SADC solely in the name of tradition, but contribute to the persistence of gender inequality. A cultural practice that denies my equal rights, because I am a woman, is unconstitutional.
Gogontlejang Phaladi is a philanthropist, youth ambassador, motivational speaker, activist, writer and founder of the Pillar of Hope Project. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, special series on celebrating Phenomenal Women, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.