Botswana minorities need boost in education and health care, says UN expert

By agency reporter
August 27, 2018

Botswana must step up efforts to recognise and protect the rights of minorities in relation to public services, land and resource use and the use of minority languages in education and other critical areas, says the Special Rapporteur on Minorities, Fernand de Varennes.

“Botswana has made considerable progress in economic development and other areas including education and literacy, religious freedom, the fight against HIV/AIDS and corruption, but more must be done for minorities”,  said Mr de Varennes in a statement at the end of a 12-day mission to the country.

“Access to public services, land and the use of resources for minorities can be improved as well as the use of minority languages in education and other critical areas”, he added.

The Special Rapporteur welcomed moves by the Government towards adopting more international human rights standards, but he expressed concern about the lack of a comprehensive human rights legislative framework. He said there were gaps, uncertainties and even contradictions in the protection and promotion of human rights, which could best be addressed through a dedicated Bill of Rights.

Mr de Varennes said there were obstacles to a widespread and vibrant flow of information and exchange through private newspapers and broadcasting media, which appeared not to use or allow broadcasts in minority languages, or to receive licences to do so.

The Special Rapporteur highlighted difficulties faced by minority children in education. Basarwa and other minorities living away from the more populated south and south-east of the country faced particular difficulties in accessing quality education, including senior secondary education, because of the scarcity of schools and challenges in transportation.

“Many minority children living in remote areas of the country are torn from their families and forced to stay in boarding school hostels, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away from their communities; they may be taught in a language they do not yet speak, with over-burdened care-givers not familiar with their culture, and often lacking material and emotional support.

“This form of institutionalisation leads to forced assimilation that has a serious negative impact on the performance in school of many, if not most, of these children, and often forces them to drop out, at a heavy personal and social cost. Less intrusive and harmful approaches to providing education for these children, particularly those of a very young age, must be explored and put into force”, the expert emphasised.

“Education in Botswana is provided only in the national Tswana and official English languages without any use of a child’s minority mother tongue at any school level, while ironically French is usually offered as a third optional language. I call on the Government of Botswana to follow-up on the commitment expressed in the Vision 2036 document and introduce the learning of local minority languages in the early school years, and to ensure that schools in regions with a strong minority presence recruit teachers who speak the local languages,” he added.

Mr de Varennes also made specific reference to the importance of recognising and promoting Botswana sign language in order to ensure greater accessibility for the deaf minority.

During his visit, Mr de Varennes also raised issues over the participation of minorities in public life and their representation in key institutions.

“Since its independence in 1966, Botswana has not provided for the official recognition of its numerous tribes, with the exception of the Wayeyi and the Basubiya. In addition, it has maintained a three-tiered legislative and institutional framework that appears to award privileges to the eight constitutionally recognised Tswana tribes, both in terms of representation in the House of Chiefs as well as with regard to control of local administration structures,” he noted.

“Bold political decisions need to be made to ensure that equality among the different tribes and respect for diversity are fully reflected in the constitutional order and the institutional framework,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur highlighted concerns over the scarcity of medical and other public services, particularly in remote minority areas, despite Government efforts to fill the gap through mobile units and outreach health programmes. Minority languages are rarely used during medical consultations, mainly due to the dominance of Tswana and English, as well as due to the practice of staff assignment in areas where the locally spoken language is different from the language of the assigned staff. Accurate diagnosis of health conditions and resulting prescriptions may be compromised, in particular in those cases involving older minority patients who are not fluent either in Tswana or English.

“Despite all the positive initiatives to improve access to justice, health care, water and other public services for all, particularly in the more remote regions where minorities are concentrated, some of the Government’s commitments and intentions have not always translated effectively into practice and implementation”, he said.

Mr de Varennes raised concerns over the current system of land management and land allocation, in particular under the increasing pressures of development projects and business initiatives, mainly in the tourism sector.

“In a number of districts, State-declared land, including national parks and forest reserves, as well as large foreign-owned plots and farms, significantly limit access of local minority communities to agricultural land and areas for hunting and other economic activity,” he said.

Finally, Mr de Varennes expressed concerns about a lack of clear data about people’s ethnicity, religion or language, which he thought could be addressed by adjusting the country’s approach to its census.

During his mission, Mr. de Varennes met high-level officials, civil society organisations and minority community leaders in the capital Gaborone and in the North-East, Central, Ghanzi, Chobe and Ngamiland districts.

The Special Rapporteur will present a detailed report on his visit to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2019.

* Read Vision 2036 here

* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/Home.aspx

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