We must remember: We Are More Than.

Often, in many contexts, the granting of rights to us, people who are non-conforming in our sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is seen to come at the expense of other hard won rights and freedoms.

Sometimes this is structured as the ease of visa restrictions for LGBTIQA people where women in abusive relationships and encountering violence with no justice and recourse are not given the same consideration.

Sometimes it’s extra safety and security given to LGBTIQA persons in refugee camps where young women continue to have their genitalia mutilated without State or international intervention. Or our cries for their justice and dignity.

Sometimes it’s POTUS [President of the US] insisting that SOGIE or LGBTIQA issues are put on the table for discussion while the continued militarization of Africa goes unaddressed, and political as well as socio-economic unrest births all kinds of fundamentalisms that we gloss over.

To an extent, real or limited or extended, our oppression has privileged us and this moment is a powerful opportunity to show that we stand with all other movements, people, organisations and sacrifices that have led to the recognition of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression in local and international human rights and advocacy spaces. If we don’t recognise the sacrifice that has gone into ensuring that the struggles of queer and people non-conforming to heterosexuality are pushed to the fore, we are in danger of allowing our privilege to oppress others. 

The women’s rights organisations that agreed to be fiscal hosts of our donor money when our governments would not register us. The people, thousands and hundreds that attend our pride marches, allies, fierce social justice warriors who defend us. The many non-LGBTIQA people and organisations that put their own well being at risk because they saw that our oppression was unjust and believed that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. The non-lesbians and gays that love us and protect us. The non-trans humans that defend our trans-bodies and experiences and lives. The none-queer people that stand with and for us. They too are oppressed in similar ways as we are, we cannot and should not create a hierarchy of oppression that presents our struggles as superior to those of people outside our ‘thematic area’. 

We are asking to be seen as people, as a movement, as a collection of movements, that care about other movements, as people who are invested in the the well being of all people. Not a thematic area.  We recognize the links, the curves and bends of oppression and privilege and where they are located.We see the need for collective work to push for change. We also see and are critical of power and where it lies.

And we know that the only way to guarantee our own safety, our own freedom, our own right to life and dignity and justice, is to ensure that we ALL can live better, autonomous lives.

-Sheena Gimase Magenya

(The views above are shared on an individual capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or the position of the Coalition of African Lesbians)

Defending Our Dream: Fikile Vilakazi


When the Coalition of African Lesbians was formed, the dream was to create a public
political space for lesbian feminist voices to emerge, be visible and influence the ongoing
private and public debate about our sexual and gendered lives as lesbian women in Africa.
We were angered and exhausted by the dominance of masculinist voices in the sexuality and gender debates globally. We fiercely claimed and created our space against the political tide of what I now call ‘queer masculinities’ – that is masculinist power disguised as freedom from heterosexualisation and genderedness. This form of male privilege and power is different from heteropower but similar in the form of expression, influence, domination and control.

Our vision was clear: we wanted justice, freedom and transformation. Africa needs to be transformed into a place where lesbian women, in all our diverse sexualities and genders, are treated with dignity and respect as full and equal citizens of our countries and continent. We are embedded in, while critical of, our various African cultures and heritage.
We were determined to ensure that this transformation is felt both in the private and public spheres of our lives: our homes, our schools, our shopping centres, our streets, our neighbourhoods, our faith-based centres, our jobs, our clinics, our hospitals, our police, our judges, our courts and our governments, among others.

We wanted this impact to be felt not just in Africa but in the rest of world. In our view, everyone needed to know that African lesbian women exist. We are here, we breathe the same air, we have a pulse, we are human. And we are African: born, raised and at home in Africa. Firstly, we committed to telling everyone that we exist, including our friends, families, communities, leaders and decision makers nationally, regionally and internationally. Most of our governments have continuously tried to convince the world that there is no such thing as ‘lesbian women’ in Africa. Secondly, we committed to writing about our experiences, so that everyone can read about us and our experiences as lesbian women in Africa. Of course it is not easy to write about our intimate lives.

Where does one begin to place the camera, pen and paper: under the pillow, next to the bed, on top of the table or on the roof top? We needed to learn where and how the equipment (camera, pen and paper) should be positioned. This sounds so sexy, I love it!
Thirdly, we committed to building a lesbian women feminist movement. We knew that in order to achieve our dream, we had to be an organised force. This meant that we must identify, support and work with lesbian women organisations and individuals in Africa and the diaspora to build a network of committed and willing voices to take up the struggle and spread our revolution. We knew that our power lies in being a collective, a movement. So, this is the dream that formed the Coalition of African Lesbians.

We are now celebrating the tenth anniversary of our dream. We have succeeded in setting up an agenda for our sexual and reproductive rights revolution, centering on the rights of lesbian women to bodily integrity, autonomy and choice. We have and continue to assert ourselves in the different spaces regionally and internationally, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Commission on the Status of Women.

We have also entered and engaged progressive international civil society spaces such as the World Social Forum, the Sexual Rights Initiative, the Feminist Dialogues, the Reproductive Health and Rights Advocacy Network for Africa and the African Feminist Forum, amongst others.

We were able to support some of our member organisations, particularly in eastern and southern Africa, in times of serious human rights violations through violence and the tabling of punitive legislation against people in same-sex relationships. We were there to support Victor Mukasa’s court case and legal victory in Uganda, stood by the activists there during the trauma of David Kato’s murder, and collaboratively strategised on how to fend off the political backlash that came through the punitive Bahati Bill. In Rwanda we were able to support the civil society alliance that successfully engaged with the revision of the penal code. We need to strengthen this area of CAL’s work through more such strategic interventions.

Ideologically, the dream has been driven by an African radical feminist philosophy, based on the idea that women and men must be free to confront and resist patriarchal constructs of gender and sexuality and redefine their own constructions of gender and sexuality outside of the ‘traditional’ and postcolonial patriarchal norms. We have adopted an intersectional analysis of sexuality, gender, class, race and other markers of our multiple identities in our politics and activism over the years.

The point of reference has been to confront the power of patriarchy and the way that it plays itself out through sexuality, gender, class, race, ethnicity and culture. We are aware that even though the power of patriarchy is expressed through human beings, particularly hetero men and women, transmen and queer men, the problem is systemic. So, our fight and struggle is not primarily against individual people but the system. At the same time, because individual people position themselves as custodians of the system, we often find ourselves at loggerheads with various people as well as institutions in the fight against patriarchy embedded in class, race, gender and sexuality.

The past ten years have been about ‘building lesbian feminist voices for the 21st century’. This was the theme of our Third Feminist Leadership Institute in Maputo, Mozambique in 2008, and it continues to be part of our vision to build lesbian feminist voices on the continent and in the diaspora for the years to come.

Can and should the dream be defended?
It may be surprising to suggest that we have only touched the surface of the struggle for justice in the last ten years. At least the world knows about us, our voices are heard in national, regional and international spaces, but there is still more to be done to deepen our fierceness in the struggle for lesbian women justice in Africa.

We need to be smarter and more decisive about which battles to fight and how. We cannot fight them all, neither will we win them all. So, we must calculate clearly and be more focused and strategic in our approach. This is very important because this dream that we have all created depends on us to make it happen. It needs us as people, our strength, our capabilities, our passions, our commitment and courage, our energies and anger, our fears and sacrifices.

At the same time, we need to take care of one another and be mindful of our well-being. Our solidarity must be built on the culture of ‘active critical care’, ‘active critical respect’, ‘active critical trust’ and ‘active critical reciprocity’ as a fundamental aspect of our feminist movement building.

Secondly, we have not written as much as we thought we would have by now about our own lives in Africa. This must still happen. I am reminded of the words of a South African feminist poet when she said ‘tell your story; let it nourish you … some demons walk with you to bind you, but some demons walk with you to free you.’

(Lebo Mashile, In a Ribbon of Rhythm).

We must write and develop knowledge about ourselves. Our knowledge is our power.
Thirdly, patriarchal violence and homophobia have not stopped yet. Lesbian women continue to be killed, raped, assaulted, hunted, stigmatised, humiliated and treated as non-citizens in Africa. Our dream is about sexual and gender freedom and justice. We dream of a world where all people are free to determine their own sexualities and genders inside and outside of traditional binaries of women and men, female and male, vagina and penis, positive and negative. Our struggle recognises and asserts that sexuality and gender are fluid social constructs. They change and evolve with time in specific historical and cultural contexts. Sexuality and gender thus cannot and should not be determined by society because these are individual and personal issues that can only be determined by individuals for themselves. So, people must be free to choose who and what they want to be sexually and genderly without any constraints and impositions from society. This is
the freedom we talk about, dream about and claim.

We have learnt through our own experiences that there are multiplicities of sexualities and genders. The past ten years has been dedicated to actively engaging with the intricacies and delicacies of these issues and we must continue until all human beings are free sexually and with their gender, and accept that freedom is relative, it can ultimately only be defined and determined by an individual who experiences it.

Power in the dream The essence of the dream has been to make power visible in its various forms and assert that power is everywhere in our lives. It must be surfaced, confronted, challenged, claimed, shared and used for the benefit of everyone and not just a few individuals and groups. This is the fundamental aspect of feminist thinking in the dream of CAL activism. We must challenge, question and confront power, particularly the power of patriarchy, hetero-normativity, homophobia, sexism and injustice. This process must happen everywhere, in our own personal and political lives.

The one thing that I would recommend CAL to focus on in the next couple of years is writing. We have a wealth of knowledge that we must make public to claim our space about our existence, our sexualities, our genders, our livelihoods and our being. Let us do research. Let us write and publish. Let us have our own journal and recognise lesbian feminist writers in Africa. Happy 10 years CAL. I am really proud of what you have become, a true African feminist lesbian women voice in the world. The world has seen you, felt you and touched you. You are real. You have fought a good fight. You have weathered the storms and you are standing tall. Go on, rise and prevail!

No retreat!



CAL@CSW60 Updates: When a woman human rights defender is murdered

by Sheena Magenya

The CSW space is always overwhelming. Overwhelming in many ways. The number of human rights defenders that descend on Manhattan in March is eye opening, as are the number of issues that we deal with in our countries and contexts. Every year, we find new, young, energetic women and men dashing from side event to side event, and passionately participating in meetings where they ask questions that many other human rights activists have been asking for years. 60 sessions later, the CSW is still a space for asking questions, and reflecting on the work that we do, the work that exposes us to danger and fatigue, and in many cases, work that gets us killed. We also see old women, activists who have been doing this work since before I was born, uncomplainingly standing in long queues to get their UN tags, and chanting along with other human rights defenders at rallies, in the rain and cold of a New York spring.

This was what I saw when I stood outside in the cold on a Thursday afternoon chanting along with nearly 300 other women, children and men outside the Honduran Mission to the United Nations in New York. Moving around slowly but deliberately, older feminist activists made up a large percentage of the crowd, chanting, singing and handing out literature to people gathered. Meters ahead, far from where I could see, Bertha Cáceres, daughter of Berta Cáceres, was there, firm and brave, speaking passionately through a translator about her mother’s work, and how now, more than ever, this work needs to continue. As I listened to different speakers shout our demands to the Honduran Government for justice, I was overwhelmed once more, but this time thinking, if I was murdered because of my indefatigable search for justice for all women, how would I be mourned? Who would know? Would there be justice?

Berta Cáceres was a Honduran woman human rights defender and environmental champion, who co-founded and directed the organisation Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras [COPINH], which was resisting the construction of DESA’s AguaZarca hydroelectric dam. on March 3, while asleep with her family, Berta was gunned down, assassinated in her own home. Twelve days later, another member of COPINH, Nelson García was similarly murdered in his home. The impunity persists.

As I stood there in the cold and waved my fist in solidarity with our call for justice, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first one was a thought that was shared by a fellow panel member, Patricia Galvez from Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy  said that, if the Honduran state had the arrogance to kill a women’s rights activist and defender as known and popular as Berta, then all activists lives in Honduras were in danger. She also said that, in this brutal attempt to stop neo-liberal capitalist state machinery dead in it’s tracks by killing a loud voice of dissent has instead led to the multiplication of Berta’s work, her voice, her passion, her vision. She said that they are not afraid anymore, that while all their lives are in danger, they might as well stand taller and shout louder and ensure that Berta’s vision is realised, and her dream made real.

My second thought was, where the sisterhood and solidarity has gone. The CSW attracts thousands of women and men from all over the world, all of us ultimately working towards justice, freedom and the realisation of universal rights for all people. Outside our donor-driven funding silos, all our work intersects. We all wish for a better world to live in, and CAL time and again reiterates our intersectional and Radical African Lesbian Feminist Politic which critiques and analyzes what ‘Sustainable Development’, in the face of a mostly white hetero-patriarchal capitalism that influences many of the policies and politics that are present in various advocacy spaces.

If indeed we knew, or know, that we are ultimately working towards the same goal, it is heartbreaking, that so few people, for once present in one place, and with the opportunity to show global and intersectional solidarity for Berta, didn’t show up. I was again surrounded by older women, the second wave, bra burning feminists who, like Berta, are determined to die at the front lines of resistance, whether this resistance is a rally in New York, or protecting forests in Nairobi.

This moment re-affirmed a thought that I am still to scared to say out loud, that the CSW is not a feminist space, or a space welcoming of feminists. But we will keep coming to this space, because feminists fought for the The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [CEDAW], which is why today, women like myself can travel to this space, and stand in rallies, and sit in panels with other women and continue to make demands and to continue to ask questions.

Even in her death, Berta Cáceres is s phenomenal and inspirational woman worth knowing. Read this wonderful obituary by Beverly Bell first published on Democracy Now.


CAL@CSW60 Updates: My fourth day at the CSW


By: Ntlotleng Mabena

The fourth day was really an interesting one, it invoked in me all sorts of varying emotions at high intensity. After an anxiety-filled night, the day started with a session on ‘Achieving women’s empowerment for women in their diversity.’ I represented CAL on the panel discussing this elusive issue regarding empowerment and women in their diversity. The issue regarding women empowerment has really bothered me all week, and I have been really grappling with what this word really really means.

The first meeting I attended when I arrived in New York was the Women’s Rights Caucus; a session that acted as an orientation session, and to discuss broadly about the issues that were going to be points of discussion at the official CSW in the 2 weeks. What really struck a cord, and instilled this discomfort about the word ‘empowerment’ was when it was announced that UN Women, due to their donor pressures in essence, are not entertaining the push of language that talks to sexuality this year, in the fear of ‘losing’ key funders. Yet, in the same breath, UN Women’s primary objective, as I understand, involves a push for women empowerment at various levels.

Now my question is; “How are we even talking the language of women empowerment when, from the word go, voices of women regarding their own sexuality is being gagged by the very structure that is supposed to be standing with us women?”

A lot of the things are just not making sense to me about this picture……Anyway, back to the panel now. The panelists continued to talk about what women empowerment means in the context of women in their diversity. The CAL position on naming the different powers that oppress women was raised as an important analysis in the empowerment discourse. Also, it needs to be clear whose perspective is used when talking about empowerment, because my personal view of empowerment will significantly differ from the view of the one who holds a specific kind of power. The motives of ‘empowerment’ will also significantly differ between the two, as will be the measure of empowerment at the end of the day. It was a really interesting discussion, and even though I lost plenty of sleep over it all, I am glad I was given the opportunity to raise my views.

Next up, was a surprising session that we, Tanya, Sheena and myself, found ourselves in. We ended up at a session on the ‘Economic and sexual violence against women as barriers to sustainability: Case studies in prostitution, sex trafficking and the sex trade.’ This was an interesting session, mostly because I personally do not have a solid view on the issue at hand myself. It turned out to be a session condemning ‘prostitution’ and naming ‘prostitution’ as outright exploitation of vulnerable women, and commercialized rape. At the beginning of the week, we were warned about intense activities against SOGIE rights, sex worker rights and abortion by right-wing organization. I did not particularly imagine how explosive it could really get! And boy did it get explosive in that session! Women who identified themselves as sex workers were deliberately verbally attacked when they tried to raise their voices and counter some of the arguments made by the panelists. There were even school girls who were bused in to cheer and clap when the anti-prostitution camp spoke. It was really crazy, and it really left me speechless. On several occasions I wanted to stand up and walk out, but I kept on reminding myself that I am here to absorb this experience, and denying myself the experience of feeling uncomfortable was not going to do me any good. After attending that session, I must say that I am looking forward to attending a session on Friday that will look at the issue of sex work from the other side, considering the rights of sex workers. There was also a lot of discussion regarding the use of language, with this particular session totally against the use of the language of sex work, saying that ‘prostitution’ can never be seen as work. The session also spoke a lot about the need to remove the stigma from women who are prostitutes, by calling for the criminalization of buying sex, and publicly naming men who buy sex as prostituters, because men ‘do not buy pleasure or arousal, they buy power and violence’.

To be completely honest, I find myself completely conflicted around this topic, and I have decided to engage this issue further by confronting the things that sit so uncomfortably inside me, and learn more on this subject to be able to gain a proper perspective.

The day ended with some of us attending a rally for justice organized to mark the life of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran human rights defender who was murdered in her house while sleeping. Even though it was raining, the solidarity rally was well supported. After the rally, we all then attended a reception party hosted by Astraea and FRIDA. This unwinding time was much needed, after such an emotionally charged day. The reception gave us the opportunity to connect with other queer women on a social level…..the wine and beers flowed very well, I must say.

CAL@CSW60 Updates: My Second Day at CSW60

By Biggie Ssenfuka

The day started with the women’s caucus meeting with information that the Women Human Rights Defenders [WHRD] statement had changed the language, and was more accomodating. They also alerted us to the news that the statement was ready for circulation. Members of the caucus present also shared updates on venues and times for different sessions of the day.This was followed by the youth and SOGIE caucus meetings  where similar issues where discussed.
After sitting in on these caucus meetings, I attended the Moremi side event on enhancing young women’s voices for women’s empowerment and sustainable development. The presentation featured 7 panelist who were beneficiaries of Moremi fellowships. It was an interesting panel but left me with a lot of  unanswered questions like:
1.Who are the young women ?
2.Will we ever acknowledge the diversity of people within the group of young women?
While I appreciated that some panelists raised issues affecting young women with disabilities, I found the panel to be a bit on the conservative side when considering SOGIE.

As we all know that some of our sisters have left their countries and became refugees, I picked interest in a session on refugees and Internally Displaced Populations [IDP] as victims of sexual violence and exploitation. Here a panelist from West Africa shared how women and young girls have been given as a gifts to who ever wanted to join the rebels in West African countries. Women are abused  in the camps by the rebels. Their families are then asked to pay money which they might not have in order for the abducted woman or family members to be released. Sexual violence has been institutionalized to an extent that women are used as compensation for the rebels. There was also a Syrian panelist that shared about abuses that she had endured as an abductee, and raised how other nations are silent about the suffering of women in politically unstable situations.

Having heard all these sad stories I decided to take taxi to go visit Maria of OutRight Action International.  Here, I received a donation for Ugandan refugees in the Kakuma camp in Kenya.

Later, I got lost in the streets of New York trying to work my way back to the hotel, but after two hours of walking, the limping me reached the hotel after two hours.

CAL@CSW60 Updates:My First Day at the CSW


Post receiving what felt like the pass to heaven yesterday, today has the potential to be a great day. Myself and the rest of the CAL Delegation had to queue yesterday for close to four hours, some of it outside in the freezing temperatures, to get our UN Accreditation Tags.

A new day, and ready for whatever, so in typical New Yorker style I head down to the lobby, grab one of those unusually sized coffees and head on down to the first session on 44 East Street at the Chapel of UN Church Center.

After having been to the correct venue twice without realizing, I shuffle about in search of the perfect seating. The role of Women Human Rights Defenders and Feminist Organizations in Realizing Goal 16 is the discussion and having Sheena Magenya of CAL on the table meant that, we as African Lesbian woman are certainly not going to be on the “menu”. This was a statement shared by a woman sex worker living in the United States who said ‘If you’re not at the table then you’re likely to be on the menu’.

The session lasts a good hour and a half and ranges from topics on politics, safety, intersectionality, policies and the true definition of development to name a few. With audience of civil society desperate to really see the purpose of coming to CSW year in year out, what begins to become clear is the fact that; maybe CSW is NOT where change is made, nor is it where world leaders are willing to sacrifice individual interests for the greater good of counties. It is however the place where we as civil society groups can learn, network and potentially snatch that quick meeting with country leaders that would never happen especially on a Tuesday morning. The session ends with Sheena having drawn quite the crowd with her views on development and intersectionality.

The next event on the agenda involves dashing to the 6th floor of Church Centre for the SOGI caucus meeting – which involves a discussion on the updates of the status of SOGI language within the agreed conclusions. This discussion sheds light on the communication strategy that involves a Tweetathon on Thursday and Friday this week to raise awareness on the need to incorporate and essentially KEEP SOGI language within the final document. The meeting update makes reference to the inclusion of the word “Family” within the document however clarity is still needed with regards to the context of the use of the word.

Having to leave early to make our briefing session with Cynthia and the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) the team and I rush only to be welcomed by long queues to get into the UN Building and if that is not enough, a few delegates have to remove their belts to get through the military security.

Finally in, with no time to “snap a pic” we head up to the fourth floor staff cafeteria where the we participate in a discussion centered around conversations on experience, expectations and overall realizations that may have developed at CSW60. The briefing includes members from Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Nepal, Afghanistan and Africa in its diversity. What is interesting within this session is the realization that the space is not as safe as we would like to believe which is ironic considering all the checks and balances needed just to receive accreditation to the CSW space. The conversations also looked more into ideological safety and solidarity. “Who can we actually trust” is a common thread coupled with the occasional look over the shoulder to ensure the opposition is not listening in on the discussion. The session ends with talks of exchanging contacts to ensure we continue the conversation.

17:30 and the team and I make our way to The Roosevelt Hotel on 45th street after grabbing some much needed lunch. The Roosevelt Hotel is where a panel discussion on criminalization, women and HIV: Redefining the decriminalization agenda is taking place. Surrounded by familiar faces both within the panel and audience, the panel is facilitated in a very interactive manner which includes thought provoking questions by the facilitator in an attempt to fully engage the room. Sex workers share their lives and realities which are not spoken of within the various policies and frameworks we strive for, what is common within this space is the need for intersectionality within women spaces – “these are our issues, because we are women” testimonies on Canadian women wanting to feel “whole” and practical solutions being piloted in South Africa are also shared.

This marks the end of Tuesday the 15th at CSW… I wonder if security will be just as tight tomorrow…

Till then.

CAL@CSW60: Updates


The sixtieth session of the Commission on the Status of Women will take place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 14 to 24 March 2016.

This year, the priority theme is Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development and the review theme is The elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls (agreed conclusions from the fifty-seventh session)

A delegation of feminists and activists, as well as members of the Coalition of African Lesbians are attending this year’s Commission on the Status of Women [CSW], which is the 60th such coming together of state and civil society actors coming together to speak to and report back on the state of women and girls in the world.

The CAL delegation to CSW60 is comprised of:

  • Biggie Ssenfuka:  Freedom and Roam Uganda [FARUG], Uganda
  • Ntlotleng Mabena: Open House Initiative, South Africa
  • Tanya Daringo: Her Liberty, Namibia
  • Carrie Shelver: CAL Secretariat
  • Sheena Magenya: CAL Secretariat

For the next few days, we will bring you updates from members of the CAL delegation about their experiences at this space, the challenges and important lessons learned from speaking with other feminists and activists in the space.

For more information about CSW60 please see: