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:

Anele Klasmani, S.H.E Programs Officer, Tel: +27(0)43 7220750, Email:


Civil Society Conversation on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) work before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)


The Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) are together hosting a conversation with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from all over Africa on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) work before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Present for the meeting are passionate activists from Burundi, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Uganda. This meeting is taking place on the 31st of October and the 1st of November somewhere in Africa.

This is important work that CAL, AMSHeR and the LRC have been engaging on in various advocacy spaces such as the African Commission (ACHPR) and the UNHRC. The LRC has previously been engaging on issues of education and extractive industries. CAL and AMSHeR have been engaging in these spaces on SOGI issues as well as work around Women Human Rights Defenders. In addition to various other ways that CAL has done its advocacy work-this too is a very important space, where various organisations working on SOGI issues in Africa commune to share local experiences and ways of working, and to strategize collective action.

This meeting was deliberately called a conversation, and the core intention of this meeting is to get the different organisations present to talk about what their knowledge of the various UNHRC processes, resolutions and other working documents are. There are various expectations by the different organisations present at this meeting. Many people present hope to learn from the two day meeting, and know more about what the SOGI work and process is, where it came from and how it links in with work back home. The activists present hope for a plan for the way forward-because very often many such meetings do not culminate in a plan being born, or a plan being put together that strategically plots the way forward in these varied movements. One participant said that we should not be like the governments that we represent-who pay a lot of lip service and do not carry out any actual work on the ground. The participants hope that this meeting turns that tide-and that actual WORK is developed around SOGI issues on the continent. It was said that a collective standpoint on SOGI work on the continent should be developed, and when presented to the UNHRC, we can clearly articulate what work we do, how we do this work and why this work is important. One participant hopes that such a unified standpoint is developed and agreed upon during this meeting. It’s expected that whatever strategy is developed is easy to follow and can actually be implemented by different organisations on the ground. It’s important that an African movement develops an African voice and standpoint on sexual orientation and gender diversity issues, and not forgetting issues around trans-diversity as well. Networking opportunities are also open in this space, as there are many organisations that work on the same issues that can see trans-national or trans-organisational avenues for collaborative work and action.

This will be a big learning process for all activists present. There different organisations present are all at different stages of activism and development in their different countries. A country like Tanzania has only been engaging on advocacy work around sexual diversity and gender identity work for about three years now, which is in all essence in its infancy. This is an exciting space for exchange and sharing and learning for these different organisations, and perhaps learning of best practices from different organisations and how Tanzania can perhaps go about their work differently.

As is the life of activists, everyone is tired, and some exhausted. But hopeful that this meeting will help them plan a way forward for work on the ground at their organisations back home.

Let the learning begin!

LGBTIQA AND TECH: Why online privacy is an LGBT issue


The First Word I Ever Googled: Why Online Privacy Is an LGBT Issue

By Allyson D. Robinson

Organizational design, change strategy, and social/civil entrepreneurship consultant

The first word I ever Googled was “transgender.”

This was in 1995, so I didn’t actually Google it per se. Larry Page and Sergey Brin hadn’t even developed the first Google algorithm at that point, so if you wanted to find something on the Internet, you went to Yahoo! and looked it up in their directory. And if you were lucky, you discovered that some generous soul had taken the time to put up the content you were looking for and had listed it there.

I was on a Department of Defense computer at the time, in my wife’s office in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where we were both assigned as U.S. Army lieutenants. She was finishing a late-evening meeting with her soldiers; I’d sent mine home an hour earlier and was waiting for her to wrap things up so that we could head back to our own quarters. It seemed safe enough. I’d already had a lifetime to learn to look over my shoulder, and I knew I’d have plenty of time to close the browser window before anyone came into the room, so I felt safe clicking on the first site I found. I read; I learned. Eventually I clicked the “back” button to find another site.

That’s when I noticed that the first link I’d clicked had gone from blue to a deep purple. My blood ran cold: The computer was keeping a record of the sites I’d viewed. I panicked.

It took me five long minutes to figure out how to clear the history, five minutes of terror, five minutes spent imagining what it would cost me if I couldn’t cover my electronic tracks: my marriage, my career, everything that mattered to me. I poured through menus, clicked through settings, found what I was looking for, and was just closing down Internet Explorer as I heard her footsteps coming down the hall.

I didn’t know that night that I was taking the first steps on a journey to health and wholeness — and I didn’t know where the pitfalls and land mines lay along that path. That first experience gave me pause, but what I’d learned instilled in me such a hope that soon I was installing America Online on our home computer, discovering more, finding other people like me. Over time I learned better ways of protecting myself as I searched for the information that, a decade later, would lead me to a therapist’s office and, eventually, to come out to my wife and to the world. Online privacy was something that was important to soldiers like me long before it was a household word.

Jump ahead a decade or so. I’d left the military by that time, but all over the world lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) service members were following the path I’d walked 10 years earlier: reaching out online, getting connected, relying on what privacy and safety the Internet afforded them to learn and grow. Only now they were doing something more: They were getting organized. While many of us were just beginning to imagine a world without “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), these brave troops were preparing themselves to play a crucial role in making that world a reality. The network they were building, using a new generation of social tools like Facebook, was strong, but it had one glaring weakness: Its security was completely dependent upon the policies and the precautions put in place by the companies that hosted it. It seemed like a worthwhile and manageable risk, but still, they were vulnerable. Today DADT is just a memory, and gay and lesbian service members and their families enjoy growing acceptance in their units and in military communities everywhere. Nevertheless, a large percentage continue to rely upon private social networks to learn, grow, and connect — aware that formal, legal equality has not yet led to equal treatment and equal opportunity everywhere. And today they are vulnerable in ways no one had even imagined just a few years ago.

Consider this: In 2006, as part of a contest to improve its recommendation system, Netflix released to the public information on the viewing habits of nearly half a million customers, information that had been scrubbed of all identifying data. Within weeks, two University of Texas researchers were able to identify many of those users by name simply by comparing the scrubbed Netflix data with other publicly available information. Among those whose identities were compromised: a lesbian woman who had, up until then, kept her sexual orientation a secret in her community. The woman later sued Netflix for privacy invasion, alleging that being outed “would negatively affect her ability to pursue her livelihood and support her family and would hinder her and her children’s ability to live peaceful lives.” These are the very same concerns that drive so many gay and lesbian troops to identify as such only online.

For transgender members of the armed forces, the stakes are higher still. Transgender troops did not benefit from DADT’s repeal, and outdated, obsolete military regulations still bar them from serving (despite the fact that transgender people serve openly today in the militaries of the UK, Israel, Canada, Australia, and nine other nations). Just talking to a therapist is enough to cost them their jobs and get them kicked out of the military. Their situation is precisely the same as that I faced the first time I looked up “transgender” on my wife’s government computer in 1995 — precisely the same, that is, with one crucial difference: Protecting one’s identity online has become much more difficult. Despite this fact, transgender service members have begun to organize themselves and their allies for change — and a safe and secure Internet is a critical resource for that organizing. In today’s world, positive change can’t happen without it. That’s why I’m looking forward to the LGBT Technology Partnership’s Fall Policy Forum, this Thursday in Washington, D.C. This first-of-its-kind event will bring together technology, privacy, security, and policy experts with members of the LGBT community for an open dialogue about the impact of these issues on LGBT lives. I’ll be moderating a panel on security, privacy, and online safety with leaders from Facebook, the National Cyber Security Alliance, the Trevor Project, and other organizations. I hope you’ll join us.

The first question I plan to ask them is, “What is the first thing you ever Googled?”