An Op-ed by Ambassador Gavin published in the Patriot on Sunday: Botswana’s Greatest Resource
Botswana is a magical place. Its people are warm, friendly and engaging. Its countryside is among the most beautiful in the world. And since independence, its leaders have used not just diamond wealth, but also integrity and a commitment to investing in people to build and sustain Africa’s most successful and prosperous democracy.
For over two and a half years, I have been privileged to serve as the United States Ambassador to one of the world’s great success stories. My tenure in Botswana has reinforced my belief that this country’s potential is vast. With the right decisions and the hard work of its citizens, Botswana can continue to prosper in an increasingly globalized economy; its democracy can continue to mature: its institutions can continue to set and meet the highest standards for integrity and efficacy. I also believe that Botswana can continue to be a force for good in the world far more influential than the size of its population would suggest.
For all of these reasons, I have devoted much of my tenure here to engaging with Botswana’s youth. Youth make up the largest segment of Botswana’s population. They represent Botswana’s potential. They are Botswana’s future. As President Obama’s representative in Botswana, one of my jobs is to translate his commitment to youth around the world and into concrete support for Botswana’s young people. My government has done, and will continue to do, a great deal. From the Peace Corp Volunteers assigned to scores of towns and villages throughout Botswana working with young people on life skills to the exchange programs that have sent Batswana youth to the United States, we are engaging with young people in Botswana and working to support them every day. My embassy has set up a Youth Advisory Council to discuss issues impacting youth. We will send 25 talented, young Batswana to the United States to participate in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. We have worked with the Government of Botswana to gather more data on the challenges young people confront. We support young entrepreneurs, and we have devoted millions of dollars to helping Botswana’s orphans and vulnerable children.
Last week I had the privilege of interacting with hundreds of youth throughout southern Botswana, in locales as diverse as Moshupa, Mabutsane, and Sekoma, on a “Youth Listening Tour.” I heard firsthand from groups of 15-24-year-olds about their personal dreams, their aspirations for Botswana, and the challenges they face. These conversations were similar to the many other discussions I have had with Botswana’s young people over the last 30 months. In all of the exchanges, I have found that in many ways Botswana youth are like their peers everywhere in the world. They want to participate in society at a local and a global level; they want the exposure that comes with travel or attending school overseas; they want to make a difference in their communities; they want to find meaningful jobs in the private sector that allow them to save for the future and start families.
But in addition to revealing these laudable, even inspiring, aspirations, many of my conversations with young people around this country -- and with their passionate Batswana advocates in the health, education, and social work communities -- have exposed deeply troubling problems. Girls – often very young girls – talk about relentless sexual pressure from adult men in their lives. Youth describe feelings of isolation and worthlessness; far too many feel that no adult in their lives will listen to them or take them seriously. Regardless of gender, young people often describe a violent, even hostile environment at home and at school that seems completely at odds with the peaceful, gentle culture that celebrates botho and values the contribution of each individual.
The often painful anecdotes of young Batswana are backed up by data. Adolescent girls continue to be infected with HIV at far higher rates than their male counterparts. Stubbornly high malnutrition rates among children (13.5% of Batswana children under five are underweight; 26% are stunted) persist despite Botswana’s robust social safety nets, and those closest to the issue acknowledge that neglect is a very real part of the problem. Results from the Botswana Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey of schoolchildren, funded by the U.S. Government and conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, indicated that violence is a very common presence in the lives of young people. Over one-quarter of respondents had been involved in a physical fight in the previous year that required them to seek medical treatment. 13% of sexually active students identified rape as their first sexual encounter.
Of course, these indicators point to the need for broad social mobilization to give parents and caregivers the knowledge, skills, and support they need to ensure children are not left behind. Botswana’s schools can also play a critical role in beginning to turn some of these numbers around, but today, too often, they are part of the problem. I have heard this directly from the young people with whom I have spoken. I have also heard tales of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by teachers and school administrators from civil society and traditional leaders. In some cases, the perpetrators were never charged and remain in their classrooms to this day. Many countries, including my own, have established and implemented policies designed to prevent violence in schools. These policies include universal school-based violence prevention education for students. They also include education for parents in order to improve parent-child communication about sensitive issues including sexual health; annual training for all school personnel; a code of conduct for all school personnel; and lastly, standard operating procedures to respond to breaches of conduct by school personnel.
I hope the Government of Botswana will make similar policies a priority, and hold teachers and school administrators accountable for implementing them. Botswana’s schools must also provide their students with the knowledge and tools necessary to live healthy lives, and to set and achieve life goals if they are to contribute to the country’s future success. Botswana’s Life Skills program, which the United States Peace Corps supports, is designed to accomplish this, promoting positive identity and self-esteem, positive communication, decision-making and critical thinking skills, goal setting, and emotional health. But Botswana can do more to make Life Skills work for its young people, by implementing Life Skills as a standalone, testable curriculum rather than trying to infuse it into all subject areas – which too often makes Life Skills an afterthought.
It is telling that the late Nelson Mandela devoted a great deal of his post-presidency passion and energy to children’s issues. His singular wisdom, experience, and vision led him to conclude that “there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Children, he said “should be seen and heard as our most treasured assets. They are not ours to be used or abused but to be loved and nurtured and encouraged to engage in life to the full extent of their being, free from fear.” The truth is that too many children in Botswana are living in fear. Too many are neglected. Too many are exposed to violence or exploitation at home or at school. This issue, perhaps more than any other -- more than the scourge of HIV/AIDS, more than the difficulty of economic diversification -- imperils the future of this great country. It is entirely within Botswana’s capacity to address this threat. Doing so will require a sense of urgency; concrete, fully implemented policy initiatives; and energized partnerships among parents and caregivers, teachers and school administrators, police and social workers. The United States will be a reliable ally in these efforts.
As for me, Botswana and its young people are now in my heart for good. For the rest of my life, I will be cheering you on.