Dumiso Gatsha on Equitable Participation

Words by Dumiso Gatsha

Equitable participation should be practiced in all spaces.

I was sitting in a State of the World Population (SWOP) report launch listening to a panel that spoke what was known, and basically preached to the converted. This is a common occurrence in civil society and UN agency engagements where many participants who arrive are invited because they already operate or engage in those spaces or thematic issues such as HIV, SRHR or Gender. The problem with this is reflective in how solutions are built and power is exercised in issues of governance. As activists we seek to educate and raise awareness in those who make decisions in spaces we normally don’t occupy. This is because we aren’t often included in deliberations and decision making because the spaces are often filled with common ideologies, traditions, employment and/or ways of working that are relevant to them. I found myself in a space that is, for me, similarly exclusive as I have not had sustained engagement despite knowing of the many actors in issues of Gender, Youth and SRHR. It becomes clear why the progress we make as change actors is often limited. For example, if hands are raised for questions and people are allowed to speak in chronological order, then because my hand was third in line – respect and equality should have allowed for me to speak, particularly because I assumed that the space was safe enough for me to raise my hand and contribute since I had an invite to attend. This did not happen though, as the powers of position and privilege of always having voice [in media and NGO associations] outplayed my raised hand. In this instance, I felt how many others might feel when the sake of keeping power and privilege defers and ultimately silences other voices. Although out of my own volition to not speak up, it taught me an important lesson in how we need to change patriarchial and colonised ways of convening. Whether in the Kgotla (customary court), at the UN, in civil society forums or at state level technical working groups.

Leadership is not a position and in exercising this for a meaningful change we need to shift the norms of engaging diversity. Leaders and enablers do not always have the privilege of the critical and insightful experiences that can inform solutions building, intervention designs and meaningful participation of their beneficiaries. These can only occur when leaders and enablers can recognise that as a conveners; equitable participation is key to having those who are often unheard and unseen to have voice and visibility in beyond the safe spaces. Moving away from business as usual requires eliminating power plays within our areas of influence. This is important for engaging young people as the majority in Botswana and Sub Saharan Africa. If you are unsure of how to eliminate power as a convenor in spaces that are supposed to be safe, here is a quick guide:

1. Power recognizes power; reach out and encourage those who do not have either to claim the space. This is only possible when you allow/permit them (before or after the fact).
2. Open up the space in setting clear boundaries of respect and equality for all in the room. Everyone’s time is valuable and could be spent elsewhere.
3. Where necessary, accommodate the non-conforming with the same energy, protocol and/or means as you do those with power.
4. Exercise your discretion leaning towards those most under represented, under-recognised and under-resourced in plenary. They hardly ever get to be heard or seen by policy makers or bureaucrats.
5. Rights are indivisible and universal. Doing the right thing means extending those attributes in affirmatively guaranteeing them for those who cannot exercise power/privilege to safeguard their rights.

No matter how trivial, impractical or insignificant you think the above guide is, so do those who impede inclusion and diversity in governance. The guide makes a big difference in the ability for one to comfortably participate within the space you provide. Having been silenced has taught me to rather put to pen and ensure that my words [and those of others] will always have a place somewhere in the world. This is the power of media and self-care. Thus if you’ll indulge me with one more paragraph of what I had to say;

“The SWOP report speaks of the universal health coverage encouraging progressive realization. Given policy and legislative advancements over the past 25 years in Gender, SRHR, Infant Mortality and Key Populations: Botswana remains outside the realm of progressive realisation because socio-economic rights are not justiciable. This speaks to accountability and restorative justice in public health provisions. The low hanging fruit to the universal challenges in providing and financing comprehensive health access, information for health impacting decision making, meaningful inclusive uptake and sustained adherence to public health is in focusing on social determinants. Social determinants qualify the science of and policy in the kind of comprehensive universal health coverage that leaves no one behind.”