Being an American Woman In Botswana

Programs for this blog post

Community Public Health

Authored By:

CIEE Gaborone

Dumelang everyone! Currently, there are only three weeks left and as I begin to seriously reflect on my time in Gaborone, and wipe away the goodbye tears, I am looking back on an experience of happiness, gratefulness, and most importantly, growth. I was able to to do some amazing things, meet some amazing people, and have the time of my life. But, the truth is, that things here weren’t always sunshine and rainbows, and I think it would be a waste of my blog (and of my anthropology background), not to disclose to you one of the hardest: being a woman. Particularly with the #MeToo movement and the increasing global awareness of gender based violence, discrimination, and oppression, gender is an extremely important subject that shouldn’t be ignored as an influencing factor on your experience anywhere in the world. Botswana is a patriarchy! This may not be the first time you’ve heard this but I’m hoping this is a helpful description of the implications of this traditionally gendered system. That being said, this blog is in no way meant to deter you from the program or worry you, it is just something that I wish I knew more about before I came. (Obviously this is also from my individual experiences and it can vary greatly from person to person, nothing this serious can be universal)

Being a woman in Botswana can be extremely challenging. It doesn’t matter if you are American or Motswana, there are times where it is exhausting, overwhelming, and terrifying. Everything from catcalling to being touched in public to being cut in line to feeling unsafe with someone who is supposed to make you feel the safest, can happen every day. The tangible barriers of the patriarchy are common place in America too, but in America, you’re also able to stand up for yourself. In America, others stand up for you. Here, that isn’t always the case. And while you will definitely come across some strong, kind people who fight on your behalf, I have found that more often than not, you are left to your own defenses. Whether you are at the gym, buying a fat cake, taking a taxi, or sitting in class, you are constantly being reminded that you are considered to be lesser than the men surrounding you.

I’m sure it’s even harder for my LGBTQ and non-binary friends because as a society dominated by Christianity, Botswana refuses to legitimize their lifestyle. Gender roles are strictly upheld, as women are expected to spend their days in the kitchen and men are supposed to be the breadwinners. Especially nowadays as empowered women across the globe begin to reclaim their rights, the patriarchy is silently pushing back. Men don’t see their behavior as offensive, and women are expected to accept it. Although it’s slowly but surely improving, the scene in Botswana is still pretty rocky. While this is going to be something that affects your everyday life in Gabs, and it may be something you have little to no control over, here are some tips that have helped me cope:

MAKE FRIENDS!! People too often underestimate the connections women can make with one another. For me, it was very helpful to form close bonds with other women on the program. We were able to debrief tough situations and be there to comfort and support each other. American friends were particularly helpful in times where I wanted someone to understand the circumstances I’m used to. (Chances are, they’ll need you too at some point)

Talking to Batswana friends is also very helpful! The women here undergo this objectification and indecency every day, and have for most of their lives. While it can be shocking to come in as an American and have your life uprooted by a strict patriarchy, it’s just normal life for many Batswana. These friends can help to ground you, support you, and reframe your often privileged perspective (also they are very good at fending off creeps in Setswana)

Making friends is also essential because although it’s a burden there are certain times when it’s safest to use the buddy system and bring along a friend or two.

PLAY PRETEND!! A lot of men you meet will propose to you. Naturally, it doesn’t make any sense for two total strangers to get married but this logic doesn’t usually stop them. If it isn’t too weird for you, bring a cheap ring from home and when you’re in a dicey situation, pretend you’re married or engaged. I have done this and it’s come in super handy! Most men respect other men, and if they realize that you are taken, they are less likely to bother you. Also, its sometimes just super fun to make up a story about a fake life (even if in the end you’re the only one who feels comforted)

BE YOURSELF!! Don’t let the perceptions of others keep you from doing what you enjoy, speaking your mind in class, and refusing to let others take advantage of you. When a man cuts you in line for the ATM, step right back in front of him. One of my greatest regrets while reflecting on this experience is that there were times when I let a fear of this dynamic hold me back from doing things I know I would have enjoyed, interacting with people I know I would have gotten along with, and traveling to places just because I wasn’t in the mood to be harrassed at station. It is gonna happen anyway, so show everyone exactly how resilient and extraordinary women are!

REMEMBER!! Any time something like this happens remind yourself that it’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter what you wear or what you’re doing, that’s just the unfortunate reality of the world sometimes.