Speaking at the start of an online seminar co-hosted by the SADC Lawyers Association and UNAIDS, president of SADC-LA, Max Boqwana, must have startled some of the large, international audience. The webinar, staged earlier this week, was slated to consider an important issue for the strange times we are now living in: what lessons learned from the HIV response would be useful for the present, and in particular for the impact of Covid-19 on social justice, protection and promotion of human rights and the prevention of gender-based violence?
Boqwana began by condemning the ill-treatment being meted out during this time of Covid-19 restrictions to certain human rights defenders and lawyers in a number of countries. Those he mentioned by name included Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. An independent, fearless, legal profession was crucial now, he said, but it would be even more important in a post-Covid era when countries in this region had to deal with the ‘undermining of rights’ left in the wake of the pandemic. He said lawyers and others working on human rights had to ensure that Covid-19 was not used by those in power ‘to close the human rights space’.
So far, his audience might have expected what he said. But Boqwana then also raised the problems faced by Africa’s gay communities and other sexual minorities during this time. They too should not be left behind, he said. Restrictions resulting from Covid-19 should not be used to impact further on the protection of their rights. The fate of LGBTQI people could not be forgotten, and the implications of the current restrictions on these groups should also be considered.
In an interview after the webinar, Boqwana said the point he was making about the need to defend and ensure the rights of sexual minorities and sex workers ‘is the same’ as the emphasis being made on other groups during the discussion. ‘The problem of gender-based violence (GBV) is a big issue. It’s even bigger now as we see how Covid-19 restrictions have escalated the numbers of people being violated. But within those many vulnerable people suffering from GBV there are those who are even more vulnerable – the voices of people like sex workers and the LGB communities are easily drowned out. I want to urge people working for human rights not to ignore these voices too.’
Boqwana said some within the legal profession were clearly conservative and took the view that sex workers and sexual minorities were ‘not worthy of being represented’ when it came to their rights. ‘This has to change.’
It became clear during other presentations that the stigma and discrimination experienced by people – gay and straight – who are living with HIV_AIDS is in many ways similar to the problems being experienced at the moment because of Covid-19 due to the restrictions imposed by government and to stigma associated with the corona virus.
One speaker explained that because of restrictions on movement, people going to collect their anti-retroviral medicine had to explain to the police where they were going and show their clinic or hospital cards. Thus, the right to confidentiality of one’s status was undermined since the police could see exactly what the person was being treated for.
Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff of Malawi’s Gender and Justice Unit agreed with other speakers that gender-based violence had become a major problem since restrictions began. There were no government-supported safe houses for women and girls needing to escape from violence in their homes.
Don Deya of the Pan Africa Lawyers Union said that the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights had produced comprehensive guidelines for states to use, showing how the Rule of Law could be maintained during Covid-19 restrictions. The Commission’s message was that all measures taken by governments during this time should be backed by law.
One state at least won approving comments from participants: Namibia’s new Minister of Justice, Yvonne Dausab, said her country had tested about 5 000 people. There were 31 confirmed cases and no deaths. Namibia had declared a state of emergency very early in the pandemic – after just two cases were confirmed. Under Namibia’s constitution, an emergency and its associated regulations must be confirmed by parliament, and this had been done.
Unlike other countries mentioned in the discussion where no special provision had been made for vulnerable categories of women, Dausab said Namibia had kept a range of people in mind. ‘We have thought about vulnerable people, women, the unemployed’ as well as pregnant women and those with pre-existing conditions that might make them more vulnerable to the virus, and provision had been made for their safety, she said.
She challenged lawyers, however, saying she had been disappointed in their response as professionals and had expected more offers to do pro bono work would be made at this difficult time.