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.


Debunking the SDGs at the entry point with Language, Logic and Framework

Social Justice Activist Blessol Gathoni at the 59th Comission on the Status of Women [CSW]

Social Justice Activist Blessol Gathoni at the 59th Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] on the right, with fellow activist, Cai Yiping.

By Queer Social Justice Activist,Gathoni Blessol

Representatives from the Coalition of African Lesbians [CAL], attending the Commission on the Status of Women’s 59th Session at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, attended a number of sessions and side events that speak to the situation of women’s rights in the world.

Below is a presentation that Gathoni Blessol, a Social Justice activist working with Bunge La Wamama Mashinani [Grassroots Women’s Parliament],a grassroots women’s movement based in Nairobi, Kenya.

She presented the below paper on a panel looking at grassroots organising by women. We felt that a lot of her thoughts intersected with our work, and that we should share this article with you.

Enjoy and engage!

Debunking the SDGs at the entry point Language, Logic and Framework 

Personal experience: modalities of exclusion at UN The engagements with the UN-­at multiple levels-that our movement Bunge La WaMamaMashinani has had, have been sporadic and mostly as physical statistic rather than participatory process. From the point of entry the ideologies, behaviours and structures in he UN have segregate you to not be able to change the direction of a/particular discourse(s) or the basis of it. If you fit your self in the dominant ideology(s) you can at best affect cosmetics of the agenda. This is at personal, institutional and inter-­‐governmental level. It was a point I raised, at a separate event-­as this-­at the Open Working Group with one of the Major Groups in the 5th SDG session that took place here in NYC in 2013.
It focused on -­ and not limited to -Sustained and inclusive economic growth, infrastructure development and industrialization.But, directed and with focus on
Women. The logic of the SDGs: keeping it pro-­profit. This language, has been very similar to the gospel of the Africa Rising
narrative that our current elitist authoritarian regimes-­chant.
Our Kenyan government and civil society are more than ever now proxys of neo-­liberal rules, regulations and policies. While harnessing societal yearning for self-­emancipation and end to imperialist control, they have managed to draw it as a Pan African struggle. They have picked up the MDGs, paraphrased SDGs and fit them into their own economic interests and control –the same way Western, Latin, Asian governments are doing and the same way companies or their representatives, trade
agreements and partnerships within governments, and, or financial institutions are doing. The priority behind this thinking
as been to accelerate profit above all – and this here, has meant profit for a few.  Thus, national regulations are beginning
to mirror the prime interest in profits over livelihoods and dignity of the people or the planet. The packaging is being pushed
instrumentally, and in ‘progressive’ language, or targets as the MDGs. And in the Kenyan context, of a very tired people-­deprived of liberty to proper information on how and where their lives are being directed from – are subjected to this. So the hear the president’s chant of sustainable economic growth, smart agriculture and infrastructure development as a means
to an end. After all the general idea behind pro-­‐profit sensationalism is also that this poverty is an individual responsibility –
it’s a fault of our own, that renders our societies criminal for existing in it. This has eradicated the possibilities of the root
cause of poverty being the penetration of the market and pro-­‐profit logic globally, in governments, monitoring, evaluation
and accountability institutions and the entire development machinery. At decision-­making levels the market has largely penetrated, because globally we have allowed them to set the rules. This we have done quite tangibly through anti-­‐human taxation structures, but also by carrying their ideology, chanting economic growth and reckless consumption without demanding proper production mechanisms.

People attentively listening to Gathoni Blessol presenting her paper at the 59th CSW

People attentively listening to Gathoni Blessol presenting her paper at the 59th CSW

The MDGs failed to address the structural causes of poverty, it failed to hold the powerful institutions, companies or individuals accountable who not
only maintained the status quo but in fact penetrated more and more into society, politics, market and culture to increase
profits and control. The MDGs have made progress, indeed-­‐one could argue-­‐ in curing some of the symptoms, in meeting their cosmetic targets, they have however not been able to tackle the unequal structures of race, class, sexism,
patriarchy, land-­‐grab, forced evictions, privatization  of natural resources, extractives, and homophobia. The outcome of
neo-liberal (MDG/SDGs) logic on-­‐ground: looking at Kenya now, to shift the conversation closer home-­I will focus on my
country, with hope that the interconnectedness of poverty, economic inequality and all forms of oppression –be it of women, people living with disabilities, small-­‐scale farmers, LGBTI-­‐Queers, indigenous people or children -­‐resonates with people from other geographic locations. Kenya, has been a darling of the West and development partnerships. Just recently, it shifted into  a middle-­‐income country, however it was measured-­‐ we were not consulted. The economic sector is booming, Kenya recently found oil and the national and global elite is excitedly
displacing people to secure it. There are major giant infrastructure projects underway – that is buying people off cheaply
or forcefully evicting them. In promotion of agribusiness, Kenya is  on track being in bed with the usual culprits of GMO
and fertilizer control. And, in terms of creating tax havens our country has been inventive with so called Export Processing
Zones. Its determination to attract FDI and investors who are tax holidaying in Mauritius has prompted them to join the
‘terrorism’ economy, which allows Kenya to increase its military power (‘capacity’)within and out, of the country. We are dominating regionally, especially in war-­‐torn areas  like Somalia and South Sudan or ‘economically challenged’ countries like
Tanzania. Kenya has looked ‘East’ for infrastructural development and technologies with China, but also doesn’t mind
‘West’ with its dysfunctional/ failed systems-­‐or really anyone with economic benefits for the ruling class. In that mix-­as the
rest of Africa, they have committed to supporting the MDGs while maintaining old school patriarchal systems. These ‘developments’
have come at a great price for the people. One is the massive displacements and evictions of people all over the country.
These are directly or indirectly linked to the neo-liberal framework and regimes. The lowest and most degrading being
in Jan 2015 our government tear-gassed children who were protesting over the illegal land grab of their playground. The
price of land has by far exceeded the value of people. So many people loose their livelihoods and are plunged into dependency because the land they settled on can make billions for others. This has happened in urban centers because of infrastructural developments or high end and luxury real estate developments, especially in the capital city and the coast. Evictions
are also connected to mineral exploration, where different methods of  displacing people are utilized, there is old-­‐fashioned
eviction, there is instigation of inter-­‐clan wars (through resource and  deprivation as well as supply of weapons) and there
is utilization of chiefs or elders or national authorities to buy the land at throw away prices. This, with inclusion to population being disowned by large agribusiness plans, whose purpose is not to produce food for the people, but for export and to instill corporate control over food production. It  has translated to dependency on fertilizers and sneaking in of GMO crops both
of which benefit the foreign owned monopoly on the same. Spearheaded and greatly funded by the same corporations that
give funds to the UN women group. These developments are not about food security, they prompt the dis-­ ownership and
evaluation of farmers and with it they doom especially rural women into poverty.

The same goes for ‘environmental protection’ -which will not work as long as it is rested in pro-­profit logic. Because under
this Kenya has allowed corporations  to displace people that have lived for centuries in harmony with environment in order
to control the land and possible privatize its resources like water. Coca Cola for  example has promised to do so in Tana
River. This is not to forget-­the UN itself having a project the UN REDD+ that allows companies to do business as usual,
to continue to pollute while gaining cheap and legitimate access to land in developing countries. One such project has
displaced the Embobout community in the North of Kenya to grow monocultures. Toppled up with China’s rise, it seems
the next idea is to have sweatshops in Africa. The best example of the pro-­‐profit logic over pro-­people is that we allow children to sew clothes for 12 hours, a day. The clothes are then bought and worn in the west and land
back in Kenya as donations that have to be bought by vendors while  undermining the domestic textile industry. And,
the country is being asked to patriotically take pride in these developments. These are just but a few of the endless list
of examples, they are in fisheries, health and ownership of women’s self determination processes.’ The corporate control
over our policies informing the neo-­‐liberal logic has kept people in dependency and oppressive relations. On one hand,
they privatize health care, water electricity, and the other resources are used to develop industry and not people. And our
government(s)  are controlling these ‘developments’ by the following. Use of propaganda machinery, increased militarism,
but also onslaught  of activists and the control of the media and civil society. Narrative versus implementation (reality):
On-­‐ground struggles.These ‘developments’ for lack of a better word, has raised a smoke of doubt and grave concern
within the organizing communities who are working within very harsh socio-­economic, political and economic REALITIES.
Who share the word grassroots in ideology and experience. There is a perspective that sees the SDGs as
a narrative that should take over its predecessor the MDGs, only with suggested changes. They are not questioning the
very structures that have sustained inequality in the MDGs. There are however collective perspectives that see it differently.

But, these perspectives-­are chocked, never given space to mobilize, organize or breathe, without repercussions of being narrowed to “anti developmental” forces. And this on local, national or global standards. So we have the narrative versus implementation/
reality – and what it directly translates to on the ground-­ to assume, development versus transformative economies.
To debunk the neo-­‐liberal and development narrative has been the work of Bunge la Wamama Mashinani, and  comradeship on-­‐ground, Continental and globally who are working for transformation of society other than
development of it. Dignity of human life, rather than upgrade of economic portfolio, sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the capital have been the core of demands on-­‐ground. What now? Individual responsibility to change
the logic This read is not to exclude the progressive and critical people in the UN hallways, who are there to see
what works, how it works, who have put efforts to build people and change the narrative, structures and behaviors only
from a ‘confined-privileged-­ satellite controlled space.’  But from an understanding that in this room, UN conferences
and working groups are people who have the privilege to think over and power to influence agendas and decision-­‐
making. It is ONLY in order to demand self-­‐ criticism of UN and every individual engaging with

As civil society organizations and people who inform policies, it remains important to dig deeper than the surface. There
are people with all sorts of expertise and inside knowledge if only it were applied on the basis of structural change.
My obligation in this space is to give you the realities on the ground. An in-­depth understanding of the ills in my society,
demand a conscious self-­‐critical existence that touches on many comfort zones. From there on, it is individual
responsibility of everyone to know where to stand in  each and every space they engage in. Even though, its not in its entirety. The SDG framework is a hypocritical manuscript to hide the interests and economic controls of elites, governments, companies and powerful individuals all over the world to obscure the underlying ideology and structures that have maintained  poverty and deny people their dignity. Any solution or target then merely treats the symptoms of structures
that serve a few while undermining the dignity of the majority. It is a scam. Such as the political declaration by the heads of
state for the Commission on the Status of Women this year. I will end by saying. What a sister of ours has continually
stated. All oppression is connected. And only from the roots can we unbound our people. It is our responsibility to affect
change. All this from a woman, feminist, perspective, focus on women and minority groups-­farmers, indigenous peoples,
queers, women, girls and children need to be radical and addressing structural inequalities both instrumentally, and

The Problem of Power


‘Oppressive power is shit!’
The words reverberated around the room. As they did, some members nodded their heads, others clapped and still more cheered in agreement. Four simple words put together in frustration and defiance, in resistance and outrage. The statement was more than a flippant observation – it is a compelling reminder of our daily realities, of the power exerted over our bodies and minds.

It is day one of CAL’s Sexuality and Gender Institute and the conversation is already cutting deep. Over forty members from across the Southern Africa region have come together to share, learn, reflect and collaborate. For the next six days, we will draw on our collective knowledge, on our experiences and struggles, as a way of deepening our understanding of sexuality, gender, patriarchy and oppression. The meeting is part of an ongoing process, one that began last August, through which the coalition will develop and implement the ‘More Than …’ campaign.

As feminists, we know that this campaign – as with all our activism – is ultimately a response to power. Whether speaking of oppressive social structures, violent assaults or the names we are called, all forms of discrimination are grounded in unequal distributions of power. And while we must always consider our practical and immediate needs, we must also seek to disrupt those broader systems that bestow and deny privilege on certain sections of society.

Today we are talking power. Not just physical forms of control, but also the more insidious manifestations of power, the multiple, invisible and sanctioned ways that it is exerted over us. We know that the personal is political and have thus dedicated time and space to thinking critically about our own lives. Creating this space is crucial: when one lives, works and loves within a hostile context, one’s time and energy is often taken up with fighting political and legal structures. But reflecting on our personal experiences is vital to understanding how and why power plays out. As one comrade noted today:

Our experiences have shaped who we are. Our experiences are written all over our faces, our hearts, our brains and our bodies. And our experiences speak to what a lot of young people are still experiencing.

Conversations about our personal experiences of oppression are not easy; power leaves in its wake hurt, anger and fear. Even in safe spaces, such discussions conjure painful memories of injustice, open up emotional and physical wounds. But as activists and feminists, we can support each other in healing and learning and fighting for change.

Today we’re using our bodies to explore the ways that power is exerted over us. In small groups, members are re-enacting personal experiences of oppression as a way of unpacking the workings of power, to reflect critically on the environments, processes and systems that allow such incidents to occur. These performances and discussions help to deepen our understanding of power and are thus crucial for planning and implementing future interventions.

Right now our members are ‘sculpting power’ – that is, they are physically expressing and then deconstructing moments from their own lives. This activity is a way for us to reflect on our ‘personal’, on our lived realities and on our own experiences of oppression.

As the process continues, we will share some of the rich conversations that emerge. These critical discussions will inform the politics of the ‘More Than …’ campaign and help us all to grow together as comrades in arms.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

UGANDA: Love, Resistance and Power of the Political Moment


Tuesday 11 March 2014

3.00pm, Kampala, Uganda

Today was a day of stunning resistance with great dignity and strength at the Constitutional Court of Uganda in Kampala. This day came as a great relief after the past few weeks since the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was signed into law by President Museveni of Uganda.

At 2.30pm, the petition, Constitutional Petition No. 008 of 2014 was filed against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014 at the Ugandan Constitutional Court. It was a simple procedure, quickly over, taking place in a small registry within the court building. The moment was a well-timed example of the power of movements. This is how change happens.  Using the law to confront the injustice of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and its consequences and implications for justice for ordinary people in Uganda.

A number of activists and human rights defenders turned up at the Court and stood waiting alongside the media for the arrival of the petitioners.

After a false start when the media clamoured to capture the arrival of two white women supporting the action, the petitioners arrived. As they stepped out of the elevator, there was a push by the media to capture the hystoric moment. Professor Morris Ogenga-Latigo, the Honourable Fox Odoi-Oywelowo and lawyer and Executive Director of Ugandan Non-Governmental Organisation, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum – Uganda, Adrian Jjuuko carried three huge blue spiral bound documents – the petition. About half of the ten petitioners were not available at the Court.

At the press conference shortly after the filing, there was a short summary of the basis of the petition and the floor opened to the press. The petition was lodged both in terms of questions of procedural justice [the Bill was passed without a quorum in the Ugandan Parliament], as well as on substantive grounds, [where the provisions of the Act are being challenged on a number of grounds.]

Here are our top five highlights of Resistance, Love and Power of the political moment:

Ø  “This law is imposing criminal measures against consenting adults engaging in same sex relations”. [Odoi-Oywelowo]

Ø  “The claim that homosexuality is unAfrican is a lie.” [Ogenga-Latigo]

Ø  “It is odd to hear Africans defending Christianity, which was brought here from somewhere else” [O-L]

Ø  “When we consider the propaganda around the process of passing this Law, we have no option but to conclude that the motives are sinister.” [O-L]

Ø  “I am not just surviving, I am strong!” [Julian Pepe Onziema]

The Petition can be accessed here.

Attached the press statement issued.

Coalition of African Lesbians Correspondent.



We are encircled by silhouettes of a woman, her blank body inscribed with a fight for justice. Buyisiwe is a survivor of sexual assault, but now she is a victim of a court system that continues to fail women.

There are thirty-one figures lining the walls, each cut-out a silent witness to five years of court delays, to a broader struggle for legal protection, safety and freedom. We’ve heard this before, but seeing it as a visual narrative transforms its message into a visceral experience. Suddenly this is not just the story of one woman; it is impossible not to reflect on the battles waged on our own bodies every day, on the lived realities of violence and control, of silencing and invisibility.

Being in the same space as the figures makes the horror of this collective story palpable. It is this power – the power of the visual, of reclaiming space – that we are thinking about and putting into practice today. The exclusion of lesbian and bisexual women, gender-nonconforming people and other marginalised communities from the public sphere is a significant manifestation of hetero-patriarchal control. But we can –and we must – fight back. By taking control of public spaces and forcing the broader community to engage with our demands, we are able to destabilise hegemonic discourses that continue to oppress us.

This morning we have the pleasure of working with our allies at the One in Nine Campaign, who will be teaching us about visual messaging and campaigning-building. Formed in 2006 as a response to the Jacob Zuma rape case, One in Nine quickly recognised the intense power of visual activism. After a series of successful actions, the organisation established its own art studio and soon after began sharing their art skills with others in the movement.

How does all of this relate to CAL’s sub-regional sexual rights advocacy plan? Developing and implementing a targeted advocacy plan, particularly one within a hostile regional context, requires very careful planning and conceptualisation. Of course, one cannot build a campaign without a demand, and one cannot decide a demand without a problem. Having thought critically over the last few days about our individual countries and then the region more broadly, delegates have identified the key challenge to which the campaign will speak: ‘the lack of freedom, self-ownership and control of our bodies’. Using the skills learnt in today’s art for activism workshop will be vital for formulating a central message around which to build the campaign.

Right now our members and partners are busy learning about three visual mediums: T-shirts, banners and film. All of these can be powerful tools for our activism, both within countries and regionally. Rather than describing the participant’s beautiful creations, we will be sharing some pictures of the finished products as well as the creative process.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

The countries in which we live



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.  

The unbearable silence of being (queer)


From the moment we are born, the people around us – particularly those with power – try to convince us that ‘silence is golden’. It’s most extreme expression may well be the old maxim that ‘good girls should be seen but not heard’. As activists, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can have our voices heard. But as today’s discussion showed again and again, there are also silences that we need to overcome within our own lives and within our own communities.

For the last few hours we’ve been trying to unpack the key challenges we’re facing. As we know, there is no shortage of problems: overcoming invisibility, gaining full control over our bodies, accessing our reproductive rights, becoming informed about sexual health, to name a few. But some of the richest discussions to emerge today related to the more subtle struggles we face.

A lot of the time it’s easy to identify the way that patriarchal power plays out in society. But power also works in insidious ways; within our own bodies, within our relationships, communities and movements, we often absorb and replicate destructive hierarchical power structures. Even the most politically aware of us make assumptions about others’ lives or bodies; often, especially when the bedroom door closes, we find ourselves falling into traditional gender roles. The desire to label and describe is strong – who among us isn’t shaped by the culture in which we exist? – but this can also lead us to inscribe our own and others’ bodies with ways of being that may be damaging or limiting.

On the flipside, labels can be powerful: they help to raise visibility and are often important for movement-building. So how do we negotiate this dilemma? We’re still nowhere close to the answers, but having open dialogue is the best place to start. And here at the workshop there is certainly a lot of ground being covered.

These conversations are vital. We must start challenging ourselves to think about the position of trans*, intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in our movements; about how we can constructively talk about our own bodies; about how we can effectively challenge traditional notions of gender; about how we can positively construct new ways of thinking and being.

At the heart of all of these questions is the notion of silence: we cannot smash patriarchy until we end the silence, and we cannot end the silence until we recognise power in our own lives. People’s unwillingness to recognise and interrogate issues of HIV/AIDS or to acknowledge intimate-partner violence within lesbian or gender-nonconforming relationships undermines broader moves to battle oppression and stigma.

We are lucky to be having some of these conversations here and now, and we’re looking forward to sharing some of these discussions with you. But even more, we’d love to hear what you think. How are these silences affecting your life? What forms of power are being ignored within our activist movements? How do you feel about labels?

Stay tuned for updates on these exciting conversations.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).