‘JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED’

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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).

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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.  

The unbearable silence of being (queer)

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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).

The gap: where rights stop and lives are lived

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We all have a right to be safe. We all have a right to express ourselves. We all have the right to choose our identities, to control our bodies, to love ourselves and each other. We all have a right to … but wait, what is this ‘rights’ thing?

Yesterday the group had a brief conversation about wellbeing, safety and security. At first, it all seemed straightforward: be aware of your surroundings, think about the people you’re socialising with, guard your identity documents and so on. But is this sufficient? Can we talk about these issues in such broad terms?

As a comrade reminded us this morning, wellbeing is political. Although it is necessary to discuss our personal safety in practical terms, there is also a great need for us – as feminist activists – to integrate wellbeing more thoroughly into our conversations. Whenever people meet and organise, there are always practical constraints. Indeed, it is inevitable that time will run out or that a ‘more pressing’ issue will be raised. Broader discussions about our wellbeing – and when I say this I’m speaking of all the complexities of our individual selves and our lived experiences – are, sadly, often pushed to the side.

Most of us are brutally aware of the disconnect between the rights discourses of which we so often speak and the realities of our lives. We all carry baggage, we all experience – in one way or another – oppression and we all have the normal stresses of everyday life. How, then, are we going to integrate these aspects of our lives into our political organising? This question is more important than it may at first seem: by not including these conversations we are, in a way, overlooking significant sites of power.

In this morning’s session, there was a point raised about how rape and sexual violence highlight the gap between rights discourses and genuine protection. ‘I know I have a right not to be raped,’ one participant noted. ‘But when it’s happening, rights mean fuck all. How do we navigate these rights discourses but still acknowledge where rights stop? How can we have these discussions in ways that really protect us, that empower us to be protected?’

We must always be aware of how our external experiences shape us and our communities and, perhaps more importantly, acknowledge the real-life impacts of these. As our comrade reminded us, ‘wellbeing is not about pedicures: it is a deeply political thing that we need to pay more attention to’. Again, there is no clear way on how to integrate these conversations more effectively, but let’s not ignore this vital part of our lives.

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

Sexuality and gender – what are the issues?

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Feminism. Sexuality. Gender. Patriarchy. Power. Bodies. Knowledge.

These words – and many more like them – fill our conversations, drive our activism. But what do such concepts mean for us as a movement? Have we moved beyond the need for labels and definitions? How do we harness the knowledge that comes from existing in sometimes similar but often radically different contexts? And how can we, as a coalition, integrate a feminist-centred politics into a sexual rights advocacy plan?

Answers to such questions never come easy, but as activists we must not shy away from tough conversations. For the last few hours, the workshop participants has been discussing, debating and rethinking how we understand sexuality and gender. For how can we move forward, how can we ignite our social revolution, without first setting our own points of reference?

And so the challenge is posed: to start developing a conceptual framework, a theoretical starting point, that not only works for us but that can drive positive change on sexual rights.

Of course, these conversations will be ongoing throughout the week, and there are plans to properly unpack the issues starting to emerge from today’s small-group conversations. But in the meantime, we thought it would be nice to share some of the themes and questions that have already begun to surface.

  • To define or not to define? A big challenge revolves around how to understand our sexual behaviours, our identities and expressions, our roles and communities. All of us make assumptions and define others, but does this behaviour encourage or hinder our battle against patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality?
  • Challenging or replicating? Vital to any discussion of sexuality and gender is the problem of power – how does it play out within our relationships, our communities, our political mobilising? Are we really moving beyond hierarchical power structures, or in our own lives are we reproducing and mimicking patriarchal power dynamics? What happens when there is no blueprint for the world we are trying to create?
  • Tick a box. Lesbian, womyn, trans*, bisexual, feminist – what do these terms mean and how do we integrate other people’s understanding of identities and expressions? Are these concepts still relevant to our live and struggles? And how does our cultural and national heritage affect these understandings?
  • Happy families? There are few, if any, visible spaces for us to discuss openly and honestly issues around families, children, reproduction or abortion. How do families impact on our relationships? How do we negotiate the boundaries of queer or nonconforming family units? In what ways do we need to interrogate the dynamics of families and how do we approach issues around definition?
  • Knowledge is power. As a coalition we hold a wealth of experience, knowledge and radical thought. But who has access to this knowledge? How does such knowledge relate to power? How do we use it to increase visibility and engage with the broader world in a way that recognises and supports our members’ own work? And how do we share our experiences, both positive and negative, in a way that seeks to preserve the dignity of individuals?
  • Fixed or fluid? So many of use the words like intersectionality and privilege, but what do these really mean for our interventions and the way we mobilise as a political movement? When is something a preference/orientation or a prejudice? Do we forget our political beliefs when we enter the bedroom?

As noted above, this is just the start of the conversation – it promises to be an exciting and engaging debate, and we’re looking forward to sharing with you some of the highlights. To give you a taste of what to expect, here is a beautifully posed question from today’s debrief session: ‘How do we escape the cages of conformity, for these are all patriarchially imposed and serve patriarchy’s interests?’ This question is at the heart of our work and must stay in our minds when planning, implementing and renegotiating any interventions. No doubt there will be much more to come on this topic.

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

Vagina, vagina, vagina to vagina!

ImageA rallying cry of ‘Vagina! Vagina! Vagina to vagina!’ rang out as the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) began its Southern Africa Planning and Skills-building Workshop.

For the next six days, delegates from across the region will develop a sexual rights advocacy plan, with a specific focus on realising social justice for lesbian women and gender-nonconforming people.

This workshop represents an important next step in achieving the outcomes that emerged from CAL’s 2008 Maputo General Assembly, where members agreed on the need for targeted sub-regional advocacy action on sexual rights. And with growing interest in, and ongoing victimisation of, LGBTIQ people in Southern Africa, this is an opportune time for organisations across CAL’s network to collate their efforts, experiences and resources into a targeted advocacy initiative.

Taking a sub-regional approach will not only allow for members to engage directly in the decision-making process but will also acknowledge and respond to the varied political and social contexts in which we live and work. 

With the theme of ‘Organising in Hostile Contexts’, this week’s gathering will focus primarily on movement-building and consciousness-raising as well as how a sub-regional advocacy plan can be effectively led and implemented.

At the same time, the meeting will allow members to share and learn from each other’s experiences – both as activists and as individuals – and to further build solidarity within the movement. It is for this reason that CAL has also invited key partner organisations, such as those focused on abortion rights, sex workers or women living with HIV/AIDS, to engage in the planning process.

The workshop will follow a ten-step feminist-centred process that will enable participants to move from identifying a starting-point and analysing the notion of sexual rights through to the development of concrete demands for change.

Proudly and staunchly feminist, CAL is dedicated to fighting patriarchy and the oppression of women and, more specifically, to defending the human rights of lesbian women and gender-nonconforming people.

The Coalition is also committed to raising visibility of its work and the broader feminist movement, and will thus be providing regular updates from the workshop. CAL has partnered with Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, an archival organisation dedicated to preserving and documenting the experiences of queer Africans, to provide blog coverage of the proceedings. Be sure to check this space for an overview of the major discussions and outcomes. 

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