Pink and Breast Cancer Awareness: Views from Batswana Women

In the next blog in the VIDA colour series, Unaludo Sechele explores how the colour pink has influenced women’s understandings of breast cancer awareness in Botswana.

Pink, like many other colours, is a colour that has been embraced all over the world. After World War Two, historians such as Jo Paoletti argue, colour was used to try to restore what many authorities saw as pre-war gendered norms. Signifying their participation in combat, men overwhelmingly turned to dressing in earthy tones. On the other hand, women’s clothing was increasingly made in ‘bright and pastel colours’. In particular, pink was used to signify their femininity, thereby affirming – symbolically, at least – women’s rightful place in the home and their role as homemakers. Kimberly Wooten also adds that that children’s clothes were segregated into pink and blue during the 1940s and 1950s.

Susan G Komen for the Cure. Image reproduction in Accordance with copyright Act 1968, Section 41: Fair dealing for purpose of criticism or review.

Sometime in the late twentieth century, campaigners seeking to raise funds for breast cancer awareness chose to use pink because of its prior association with femininity. According to Wooten, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which began in the United States but expanded globally, first used a pink ribbon to symbolise breast cancer in 1982.

Since then, pink has become the global breast cancer awareness colour. Pink has come to signify the struggle against breast cancer in many countries around the world. In this study, I concentrate specifically on Botswana, a country located in Southern Africa.

This blog investigates what women in Botswana think about pink and breast cancer. What do they think about the relevance of colour in raising breast cancer awareness? Does this colour spark people’s interest and make them want to learn more? 

Breast Cancer Awareness in Botswana

Sunrise in Botswana. Photograph by Matt-80. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Botswana is a relatively middle-income country in Southern Africa, with a population just over 2 million. Batswana (plural for citizens of Botswana) are primarily cultural; as a result, culture plays a significant role in influencing their beliefs.

Most Batswana do not pay attention to the realities of cancer unless they or someone close to them suffers from it. The statistics relating to breast cancer awareness in Botswana are alarming. The fact that many individuals go undetected and hence untreated until it is far too late is even more concerning.

There is no explicit justification for the usage of the colour pink in the literature on cancer awareness in Botswana. Little is also known about how Batswana have historically viewed the colour pink. It is only lately that the colour has become associated with women, girls, and infant girls, whereas blue has been associated with men, boys, and infant males. Given that colonialism influenced Botswana in adopting many aspects of western culture and civilization, the same may apply to the use of pink.

In lieu of any significant scholarship on cultural attitudes to pink in the country, I decided to speak to individuals who have provided insight into how women feel and think about the use of this colour for breast cancer awareness. 

text hastag pinktober on a banner over a pink and white checkered background
#Pinktober Awareness Banner. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2015, the Ministry of Health in Botswana introduced the ‘itse mabele a gago meaning ‘know your breasts’ campaign. Using this slogan, the campaign’s purpose was to educate people about the signs of breast cancer and to educate females on the need for self-examination for early detection of breast cancer. Breast self-examination and regular medical checkups are advocated to reduce the risk of death from the disease. The campaign’s goal was also to educate the public about the significance of the colour pink in the fight against breast cancer throughout the month of October. Subsequently, October has become referred to as ‘Pink-tober’ by many companies in Botswana. 

Pink Ribbon Symbol. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The campaign advertisement for Pink-tober featured a subtheme titled ‘Why I wear pink for breast cancer,’ with the intention of raising awareness of the disease. The mission was to instill faith, bravery, and unity in those battling cancer. If we were to ask Batswana to state, ‘Why I wear pink for breast cancer’, the typical answer would be that pink is a colour for women. Pink is now associated with femininity, girls, and women, so much so that pink has taken over as the standard colour for baby girl clothes in Botswana.

What these responses reveal is that women in Botswana, as elsewhere, have been socialised to believe that pink is a feminine colour. Pink has been characterised in a variety of ways that depict a woman. When I discussed pink and how it could be used to promote awareness about breast cancer with my female friends in Botswana, they had various perspectives.

A simple question was posed to these ladies: ‘What is your opinion on the use of pink for breast cancer awareness?’ They responded to this question with differing sentiments about their views and opinions. Although the informants agreed to the interviews and for their opinions to be shared, pseudonyms were used instead of their real names for ethical and confidentiality reasons.

Two Batswana women, Amanda and Ndapiwa, shared the same belief that pink is the best colour to make people aware of breast cancer. Amanda stated:

If someone was to ask, why pink? The answer would be simple, it is a soft, gentle, and calm colour, but it is also strong, attractive, and hard to ignore. Like a woman, pink gives off warmth and calm, but it also has a strong side to it. If pink was to be a name, it would be “She!” Even though she is calm, kind, and soft, it’s hard to ignore her or make her go away. She has a strength about her. So, pink is a great way to represent breast cancer because, like pink, women are fragile and cute but can be very strong when they need to be. Pink stands out and does not go away, and by using it to raise awareness about breast cancer, the world is making a mark that won’t be easy to forget, even by men. So, to anyone, a baby girl dressed in pink would look cuter, sweeter, and more lovable than a baby girl dressed in any other earth colour. A baby girl is cute by nature, and what better colour than pink to show off her girly features and cuteness? Pink’s softness just screams pretty, calm, and peaceful, which is exactly what a woman is from the moment she is born. 

These sentiments were shared by Ndapiwa, stating that pink basically shows the gentleness of a woman.

Some people, however, are uninterested in colours. They do not have a favourite colour, and have to be prompted to even begin thinking about themes or sentiments that might be associated with a specific colour like pink. For example, when I spoke to Amantle about the use of pink in breast cancer awareness, her response was: 

Now that you mention it, I realize that the breast cancer awareness campaign has a colour associated with it. It’s as though you’ve just drawn a picture in my mind. I’ve never been drawn to that colour. It was only a colour. Well, they had to pick a colour for this campaign; perhaps the colour was chosen at random. But if they truly had a brainstorming session and opted for pink. Then they may have chosen a bright colour since bright colours evoke feelings of happiness and soothe the mind. Even if cancer is awful news in and of itself, they wouldn’t have selected a dull colour for a campaign like this. Pink is calming.

In saying, that some people do not think about the symbolic power of colour; once awakened to the possibility, they can quickly climb on board, suggesting colour improvements. For example, Amantle rounded off her previous comment with, ‘whoever chose pink did a great job, but I would also recommend a brighter colour like yellow, which both awakens and relaxes the mind. As a result, pink is suited for the campaign’.

Moreover, Kefilwe believes that pink was used and accepted for the awareness campaign due to the stereotypical attitude women have developed and sustained toward the colour pink. She said, ‘we don’t normally warm up that easily to change; it is possible to embrace a different colour, but it will take time. However, with this young generation, I’ve noticed a shift from buying pink for girls to neutral nudes’. Tshepo thinks we may just be biased towards pink because that is all we know; maybe we would still embrace any other colour. She says it is difficult to conclude that it is the colour that attracts people to the breast cancer awareness campaign.

Decolonising Breast Cancer Awareness in Botswana

Caroline raised an important point that is worth considering: if Botswana wants to improve the efficacy of its breast cancer campaign, then the country should diversify its approach to breast cancer awareness.

This approach might bring breast cancer awareness closer to home by using not only the pink colour, but also the German print. The German print, as its name suggests, is a fabric that has its origins rooted in Germany. Even so, it was not adopted for use in Botswana through direct contact with the Germans, but it came to Botswana from South Africa.

Example of ‘leteisi’, a German print fabric, used in Tswana traditional clothing. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The German print fabric, referred to as leteisi in the Setswana language, is a fabric that has been used in Tswana (derived from Botswana) society for decades. This fabric has now become the traditional fabric for Batswana, which is commonly used in Tswana traditional attire and is worn mostly during celebrations like weddings and the Botswana Independence Day.

Batswana may get more interested in breast cancer awareness because of this fabric, and in that way, the message may have a greater reach and impact. 

In conclusion, there are different opinions on using pink for breast cancer awareness in Botswana. Still, the general consensus is that pink undoubtedly represents femininity and that this is therefore an appropriate colour characterising this cause, because more women than men are affected by breast cancer. We cannot, however, disregard the possibility that other colours could be used instead of pink, and the same message would still reach individuals like pink does. In fact, there is the possibility that researching specifically local associations with colours and symbols other than the transnational pink ribbon could uncover other ways of more effectively getting the message about breast cancer out to women in the region.


Unaludo Sechele is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of the Free State. Her Ph.D. was on Botswana-South Africa Economic Relations. Her postdoctoral project, however, has switched her focus to gender history. She is currently working on research to better understand how the return of husbands from long-term labour migration affects the position of women in families.

Follow Unaludo on Twitter @iamunaludo


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