Transformation, logic, and invasion of neo-liberalism in advocacy spaces: Interview with MP Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, Fearless Feminist and Women Human Rights Defender

Interview with Malawi MP Jessie Kabwila at the 59th CSW meeting.

Interview with Malawi MP Jessie Kabwila at the 59th CSW meeting.

CAL: Are you a feminist?

JKK: Oh yes I am.  My name is Jessie Kabwila. I am the Publicity Secretary for the Malawi Congress Party, the main opposition in Malawi, I am also chair for the women’s caucus, I am a Member of Parliament for Salima North West, I’m a feminist, proudly feminist and I have been one since I knew who I was.

CAL: What influences your radical position on sexual reproductive health and rights in Malawi?

JKK: I would say it’s lived experience, what I have been through in my life and more importantly what research has shown. As an academic I usually take a position based on what research is saying. I have never understood why anybody would want to lie that being gay, transgendered or intersex is something that is not African, it’s just not true. I’ve done that kind of research myself, where I went into Malawi, to remote areas, places where people haven’t travelled. People there have never been to the US, never been to the UK, they’re just being Malawian, and I have met people who have been living; a-man and a man, sixty-four years old, and they have never been out of the country. And what struck me is they love each other. The main problem with the LGBTI discourse is that it is being discussed predominantly as a sex thing. It should rather be about people and how they love each other. It’s not as if it’s just a bunch of people who sleep with each other every day, no. So maybe the question should be, do people love differently in Africa? And I think love has no passport. Love is love. Some people love other people. Other people don’t love someone else. Just like sex, there are people who don’t have sex, are we going to arrest everybody, to say, look, you have private parts, what are you doing with them? No. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s much ado about nothing. I think there’s this obsession to control people and what they are doing. Foucault talked about it very well in The History of Sexuality. To me Malawi is the same as someone being in chains and we lock the door and we say ‘why are you not coming out?’. Maybe it’s because you locked the door? I feel so passionate about this because I see how it is linked to HIV prevention. I think if people are hiding who cannot say that they are going to get condoms and they are going to get medication, we should understand how stigma is more of a killer than taking a knife and killing someone, because we are stopping them from being who they are. And that is impacting access to service delivery.

CAL: Why is the CSW not a transformative space for sexual reproductive health and rights 20 years after the Beijing Platform?

JKK: Because, like many institutions it has been invaded by neo-liberalism. This thing of wanting to make everybody happy. How was a statement that was not debated or consulted passed? It doesn’t make any sense and to tell the truth it’s making all this a farce. We can’t talk about transformation when there is so much silence of logic. Until and when the CSW embraces difference and we are not  afraid to differ, we will not realise that it is in-between difference that actually the truth lies. We have black, white, blue and whatever colour, it is therein that we find out that we have diversity. I have never seen so many countries in the world agree in minutes. We spent much more time watching a game of football than we do ratifying a political statement-it doesn’t make any sense.

CAL: How can we push for change in language at the CSW spaces?

JKK: To be honest with you, I don’t think the issue of language is going to be won in such spaces. I believe progressive, radical people, these are not spaces for us. Those who want to ‘kick some ass’, the place is not here.

Sometimes the neo-liberal framework of discussion, leaves someone with no choice but to be very radical, in order to be heard. The real question is, can we do business-unusual, when we are behaving business-as-usual?

I don’t think this is going to bring back our girls in Nigeria, I don’t think that Boko Haram is going to be a friend of women because of this [CSW process]. If say for example, we all descended on Nigeria and demanded actions to bring the girls back, they would know that something has gone seriously wrong. I think these meetings confirm the way institutions have been invaded by capitalism and neo-liberalism, all these ‘isms’ that make us say we are fine in the morning when we are not.

*Edited for tense and shortened. E&OE.

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TRANSGENDER DAY OF REMEMBERANCE-Press release from S.H.E

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Purposefully politicizing our sexual and reproductive health rights! State actors perpetuate violence against transgender women. Health is a human right….now more than ever!

S.H.E speaks from a feminist platform in articulating this strategic message to the South African, and other regional state actors, communities and other stakeholders in observing the 15th International Trans Day of Remembrance on 20 November 2013.

S.H.E, as a collective wants to highlight and address the violent actions (and sometimes the lack of appropriate actions) by our governments. The sad reality is that these actions go undocumented and they are unspoken of because the media would rather report on the sensationalist events accompanied by graphical pictures of scars, blood and murder. This plays off against the background of high prevalence of HIV because of an inappropriate government response. Trans* women globally, are plagued by high HIV prevalence, but more so on the African continent, and this is simply because we are not fully recognised by our leaders. A recent research report indicated a 19% HIV infection rate among transgender women globally. Needless to say, there was no data from the African continent.

“In South Africa and other parts of the African continent, our sisters die in large numbers as a result of the HIV burden. This will not change until we are recognised first, epidemiological counts of HIV among trans women are conducted, and effective evidence-based programming developed, that takes into account our unique needs as trans women, and far removed from the MSM (men having sex with men) response. The conflation of trans women with MSM statistics is fundamentally flawed and poses a threat to the health and well-being needs of transgender women”, says Leigh Ann van der Merwe – coordinator of S.H.E.

Transgender people are listed as a key population for the HIV intervention in the current National Strategic Plan on HIV, STIs and TB (2012-2016), yet there is no program(s) addressing the HIV burden in this population. There remains a large disparity between the political commitment on the provision of (health) services, and the lived realities of people on the ground. Outside of the health focus, safety and security remain a threat for African transgender women. Transgender women’s psychological and physical well-being comes under great threat when they are locked up in male cells in prison. They become vulnerable to rape and other forms of physical and/or psychological abuse, which in turn, has serious implications where HIV/Aids are concerned.

The focus, should however, not just be on government to deliver health and other services. The traditional leadership of especially the Eastern Cape Province have a very big role to play in advocating for the human rights of trans women. The issue of cultural circumcision is a contentious issue with the cultural obligation of all those born male-bodied to undergo cultural circumcision. This is a very controversial issue in light of government’s encouragement of circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy. Sadly, this intervention is based on a one-size-fits-all approach. Says Zaza Kwinana: “the obligation to undergo cultural circumcision in my culture goes beyond the snipping of the foreskin, it is the passage into manhood, the very notion that I reject as a self-identified trans* woman. As a sex worker, who does not have access to hormones and gender reassignment surgery, there are serious implications in the context of HIV/Aids”.

There are simply not enough accountability mechanisms on government concerning the sexual and reproductive health rights of minority groups. For this reason, we have to purposefully and strategically politicize our sexual and reproductive health rights context. On this transgender day of remembrance and into the lead up to the sixteen days of activism for no violence against women and children, we are appealing to the South African government, as well as other leaders on the African continent to initiate meaningful dialogues on sexual and reproductive rights for minority groups. There needs to be strategic efforts at understanding the ways that HIV affect particular groups and programming must be informed by such efforts. We fully share the ICASA conference’ sentiment on getting down to zero, now more than ever!

For more information on this statement, please contact:

Leigh Ann van der Merwe, S.H.E coordinator, Tel: +27(0)43 7220750, Mobile +27(0)73 8110789, Email: transfeminists@gmail.com/coordinator@transfeminists.org

Anele Klasmani, S.H.E Programs Officer, Tel: +27(0)43 7220750, Email: aneleklsm@gmail.com/programs@transfeminists.org

The countries in which we live

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A few years back, a group of rich white men sat down with a map of Africa and started drawing lines. Bargaining and trading, they split up the continent, claiming sovereignty over ‘their’ territories and deciding who could live where, who could and couldn’t move freely. And although those white men are now long gone (physically, anyway), their colonial legacies and divisions remain. What does that mean for us here today? How can we, as activists coming from very specific – and often quite different – country contexts, come together and work effectively at a regional level? How we can distil these sometimes similar/sometimes different challenges into one campaign? Throw culture, religion and governance into the mix and things become infinitely more complicated.

Today we’ve been thinking critically about the different countries in which we live and work. The goal was to identify the key challenges facing us as feminist activists within our specific countries and to use these insights to articulate a specific regional demand. Delegates were asked to consider four separate yet intersecting elements of their country: the political context, the cultural context, the economic context and the way in which the media operates.

Being a live-blog, there isn’t space here to list all of the points raised – and trust us, there were lots – so instead we’re going to share those topics that generated the most discussion and some of the commonalities that were identified. It’s also important to remember that this workshop is about developing a regional advocacy campaign, so the different issues won’t be tied to specific countries.

  • State-sponsored homophobia remains a crucial issue in many of the countries we work. Governments frequently use sexual minorities as a scapegoat to deflect attention from broader social issues and as a tool for maintaining, and often increasing, their grip on power. By denouncing homosexuality and sanctioning, both directly and indirectly, aggression against LGBTI people, nation states are able to perpetuate systems of inequality and oppression. Of course, the state’s power does not exist in isolation; in all of our countries, religious and cultural leaders decide who or what is acceptable and ‘normal’.
  • Lesbian women and gender-nonconforming people remain excluded from the workforce, further isolating them from full social engagement. In many countries, sexual minorities experience higher rates of unemployment than other sectors of society. Butch women and trans* individuals face a large amount of stigma because of their gender presentation, often in the form of discrimination, harassment or abuse in job interviews.
  • Closely linked to unemployment are issues related to education. Many delegates identified bullying and harassment at school as a major problem. A lack of support and acceptance (both among peers and the wider school community) results in high levels of dropping out, exclusion from important skills-development, difficulties securing employment.
  • More broadly, LGBTI people struggle to access comprehensive and appropriate health services. Delegates indicated that this problem plays out in different ways in different contexts: in some areas, the primary issue is a lack of awareness and training among health professionals; others noted the threat of imprisonment should they speak openly about their sexual practices.
  • For many delegates, a critical issue is the lack of visibility of different sexualities and gender expressions. This silence around LGBTI lives and experiences encourages misinformation and misunderstandings. In many countries, negative portrayals in the media – often stemming from the hateful rhetoric espoused by politicians and religious or cultural leaders –reinforce ingrained prejudices and fear. Censorship and a lack of media freedom also blocks LGBTI people, but also the broader community, from accessing accurate information and knowledge.

  • The power imbalance between donors/international agencies and on-the-ground organisations further disempowers lesbian and gender-nonconforming women. With limited financial resources available, gender and sexuality activists are forced to bend to the demands of funders and to focus on issues dictated by those with money. Similarly, legal and social barriers preventing LGBTI-focused organisations from being registered and/or recognised forces them to operate under the auspices of larger professional bodies, often leading to conflicts of interest, disagreements around funding and an inability to foreground certain issues.
  • As well as broader structural barriers, many LGBTI individuals battle psychosocial trauma resulting from multiple sites of oppression – social exclusion, sexual violence, government surveillance, homelessness, financial insecurity and so on. The impact of discrimination on individuals’ lives cannot be overlooked, nor its effect on mobilising resistance.

The above structural and social barriers exist in different forms in each of our countries, but there are also some things that are common. One thing that we can all agree on is that sexuality is being used as a political tool and, significantly, always for other’s agendas. Across all of Africa, we see queer people being positioned as this or that, as unnatural, un-African and amoral, but whatever the nuances of the portrayal, our bodies are always being used without our consent. Whether it’s physical domination or political scapegoating or a tabloid headline used to sell newspapers, our bodies and lives are being deployed for the benefit of others. Even our images and stories are reduced to commodities that are bought and used as marketing tools for donors and international governments.

So where to from here? Isolating the challenges that exist in individual contexts is one thing, but how do we distil these into a coherent demand for change? What is the one critical issue for our movement in this particular region? That’s the next step: our passionate and dedicated comrades are busy analysing and debating and digging deeper into their collective consciousness. It’s a frustrating and sometimes painful process, but one that we are all committed to.