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Making Human Rights a Reality: Beyond the Rhetoric

GABORONE—In the tiniest room staffed by one woman with a table, a chair and third-hand computer equipment, it all began.

From its birth in 2001 to today, with the support of donors, agencies, and individuals, BONELA has grown to become a strong voice in Botswana’s fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

“Through our work not only at the national but also at the regional and international level, BONELA has established itself as a recognised authority on issues of HIV and human rights,” Martin Mosima, the chairperson of BONELA’s Board, said in his opening address at the organisation’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) held on 11 Nov 2005.

At the heart of this organisation’s work is a profound respect for human rights, botho and the dignity of people. BONELA is on a mission to create an enabling and just environment for those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. Its activities are aimed at ensuring that ethics, law and human rights are made an essential part of the national response to fighting this disease.

These days, many are heard talking about human rights but not as often seen putting them into action. But making human rights a reality—beyond the rhetoric—is a crucial part of the way forward.

“We must do more than speak and write these words, and look, in all of our walks of life and areas of work, at how to implement this idea, how to make this happen. Ethics, law and human rights are not luxuries or extras,” said Dr. Athaliah Molokomme, the Attorney General of Botswana, in her keynote address presented at BONELA’s AGM.

Rather, she added, they are the “fundamentals” and “building blocks” through which society can improve access to health care, increase the number of those comfortable and ready to decide to test for HIV, and have informed and enthusiastic participants volunteer for clinical trials for new drugs and vaccines.

A victory against the epidemic cannot be sustainable if those recruited for research trials are being used only as a means to an end or if HIV testing programmes are only in place as a means to collect statistics or if people living with the virus are not meaningfully involved in developing policies and initiatives.

Against this background, BONELA has been launching its own efforts to combat discrimination and stigmatisation through five main areas: capacity building, education and training; a media campaign; outreach and legal assistance; research and advocacy. Its work is diverse and increasingly far-reaching.

Through its legal clinic, BONELA is fighting for individuals like the aircraft engineer who was fired from his job solely because he was found to be HIV-positive or the woman who suffered defamation also because of her HIV status.

Through advocacy, training workshops, and seminars, BONELA has shone a brighter spotlight on issues of HIV and human rights among a huge range of groups from parliamentarians and Ntlo ya Dikgosi to health care professionals to mining and industrial communities to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Through its research projects and publications, BONELA is generating new and valuable insights into such topics as HIV testing, confidentiality and clinical trials. Its development of training materials has been aimed at addressing issues as diverse as pediatric health care to HIV and employment to gender issues to marginalised sexualities.

Through its media campaign, BONELA is turning up the volume on its message about realising human rights—such as the rights to equality, to work, to have a family, to education, to health, and to dignity—particularly for those affected and infected by HIV/AIDS. Via posters, newspaper, newsletters and recently, radio airwaves, the organisation continues reaching out to the general public to take action and responsibility to “know your status, know your rights”.

But there is still more.

“One of the essential steps in respecting these rights is securing them in the law,” said Dr. Molokomme in her speech.

Indeed, BONELA houses the National AIDS Council Sector on Ethics, Law and Human Rights and has been an integral part of producing a review of Botswana’s laws. This review is to assess whether new legislation specific to HIV/AIDS or reforms to existing laws will be required. Recently completed, the legislative review also advises on ways to bring these recommendations into existence.

Through all these approaches and many more, BONELA’s growing number of staff and volunteers are committed to transforming human rights into reality in the context of HIV and AIDS.

With such dedication and momentum to the cause, it’s clear that the days of the tiny office without enough sitting space for two are long gone.

Originally published in Mmegi newspaper, 17 November 2005

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