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Holding our ground

Human Rights Watch has just published the results of a qualitative survey of 100 sexual rights activists from 50 countries on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. From an African perspective the findings of Together Apart are predictable, but it is helpful and supportive to know that activists face similar challenges across the world. These challenges include the lack of funding needed to challenge the legal and social status quo, the violence faced by activists, state-sponsored homophobia and the constant struggle against cultural and religious fundamentalism which is growing rapidly across Africa.

In 1998, South African AIDS and human rights activist Zackie Achmat offered one explanation for how state-sponsored homophobia began. ‘Many African politicians want to blame the West for everything, homosexuality included.These governments are precarious and terrified. The people are roused up against them, and there is no one to support them. Their only real hope is that people die of AIDS or hunger before they are angry enough to rebel. And what do [the governments] find? They say “homosexual” and two sorts come running to them: the Christian churches and the African traditionalists, two groups who usually won't even speak to one another, come flocking behind the government’s banner. Suddenly they have support. It’s a magic word.’
Sexuality is more than ever a war zone, in which religious forces strive for social and political power. The bid by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola to split the Anglican Church through opposing acceptance of gays and lesbians is only one symptom.

Despite the enormity of the struggle ahead, there have been some amazing steps forward over the past few years – in Uganda, Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria. The report highlights some of the strategies used by activists. One in particular from South America stands out: the building of coalitions with other social movements such as with women’s and human rights group. In southern Africa the land rights movement is highly radicalized and very strong; it would make sense to work with them as well as women’s and human rights groups. Unfortunately women’s organizations, and women in academia, have not been very forthcoming in support of the LGBT movement in Africa.

Alliances continue to be crucial. In Paraguay, a lesbian activist says of the Network against All Forms of Discrimination (a very broad coalition of civil society organizations which drafted the equality bill and included sexual orientation and gender identity): ‘We worked really well together. The fundamentalists have clearly said that if the bill did not include LGBT people, it would already have been approved. But the coalition is holding its ground strongly. The disabled people’s movement is the strongest partner in our coalition and their motto is “All or none”.’

The greatest challenge facing activists and organizations at this time in Africa is the lack of funding. It is taking its toll on activists personally and collectively – as with the outings in Uganda and Nigeria which left people very vulnerable to abuse, loss of home and property and which resulted in many of them having to flee. Without money it is very hard for these activists to stay safe.

The report can be read in full here.

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