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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Zambia’s Growing Intolerance towards LGBTI persons

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Photo courtesy http://www.osisa.org

During recent weeks, we have received numerous reports of increased violations against sexual diverse and gender variant persons particularly gay men in Zambia. On January 3, 2014, a self-identifying gay man was beaten up by a mob of people in Lusaka’s Garden compound, the mob according to his testimony also included three (3) police officers that threatened to ‘ungay’ him. The identified young man alleges that this is the fourth time experienced an attack by members of his own community since 2012.

Against this wave of growing homophobia, two alleged gay couples of Lusaka were recently outed on a popular news blog called the Zambian Watchdog for allegedly practicing homosexuality. Preliminary reports indicate that one of the couples detained by police are out on bail. The same week, Police in Isoka District, detained a 17-year-old grade 12 pupil on charges of ‘practicing sodomy’. Media reports indicate that the seventeen year old has admitted to the charges.

Earlier in the month, a named Catholic Priest of Lusaka was outed on the same media blog for allegedly practicing sodomy. This blog went as far as disclosing the residential address of the named person without any regard for the person’s safety. Meanwhile in Kapiri Mposhi District of Central Zambia, two young men have been held for over nine months on charges of practicing sodomy and detained without bail, if convicted on both counts on February 27th, 2014 they may face up to thirty years imprisonment to life. Under Zambian law, the act of sodomy carries with it a minimum fifteen years to life.

On November 5th, 2013 Zambia’s First Lady Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata said, ‘Personally I am concerned about the vulnerability of our women married to or in intimate relations with men who also have sex with men. We have anecdotal evidence especially in colleges where young men are enticed into having sex with men but at the same time also have young girlfriends on the side. If not checked this will derail the positive strides that this country is making.’

The Zambian First Lady statement was instantly lauded as ‘heroic’ and ‘game changing’ since she further alluded to some far-fetched notion that there was need to discuss issues around men who have sex with men. Fast-forward to 2014, the situation for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians continues to deteriorate. Those accused of ‘practicing’ sodomy are arrested and outed on online media blogs with wanton carelessness – beaten and or kicked out of their homes and schools without much of a stir from the international community, after all ‘the LGBTI community was blessed’ with a miracle in the form of Dr. Christine Kaseba–Sata’s statement in the month of November, 2013. How ironic!

I was one of those unfortunate pundits who initially lauded Dr. Kaseba Sata’s speech at the time because despite my instincts, I could not help but be hopeful that her ‘game changing’ speech albeit laced with homophobic sentiment, ignorance and negative stereotypes – would be a starting point for meaningful dialogue around a seemingly ‘contentious issue’ in my beloved country but alas!

As a human rights defender, operating on the ground in Zambia these days and often times, a victim of many a government and community sanctioned harassment owing to the work that I do and taking into cognisance my external environment characterised by increased media outings and police arrests in recent months, I refuse to sit by and allow a well-funded and well executed public relations campaign targeted at donors and cooperating partners to overshadow the lived realities of LGBTI persons in Zambia. This campaign in my opinion, was created as a mere ruse to solicit for donor funding without the accompanying accountability for the lives that are being lost as a result of failure to access essential services by the LGBTI community. Yet again, Zambia is still perceived in the eyes of the international community as a ‘queer paradise.’

The reality however is, life for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians and their defenders has become unbearable – it’s hard to walk on the streets or sleep in your own bed for fear that your own family, friends, neighbours, co-workers may beat you, kick you out or worse, turn you over to the police as has often been the case. Law enforcement officers vying for many a promotion only have to announce the arrest of a LGBTI person to get the media attention that will catapult them into stardom and gain them the favour of the appointing authority who in this case happens to be Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata’s husband and the current Republican President.

I applaud Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, not for her obvious homophobic sentiments or her inability to act and follow up on her words, but more so, for her impeccable public relations skills that in one statement succeeded in pulling wool over the rest of the world without much consideration for the silenced and embattled LGBTI community. Bravo!

LGBTI Zambians, their defenders and allies continue to live in constant danger and fear of arrests owing to their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identities and the work they are involved in – allies of this community are not spared but also continue to face intimidation, arrests and harassment at the hands of the state.

Meanwhile, the world continues to celebrate Zambia’s miracle – the miracle of growing intolerance, bigotry and oppression targeted against a community that is downtrodden owing to the myriad persecutions that it faces endorsed by the world’s silence – what a travesty!

Overshadowing this worrying trend is the issue of Zambia’s final draft Constitution that the State has refused to release to the people contrary to their pre and post elections promises. High profile opposition politicians, civil society leaders, journalists are often arrested and detained while the persecution of LGBTI persons, considerably one of the most unifying issues in the country heightens without much sympathy or redress.

What has gone wrong in our once inclusive and tranquil nation? And pray, who will speak out for Zambia’s oppressed, silenced and marginalised LGBTI community if Dr. Kaseba Sata’s homophobic statement is still lauded as a miracle despite this period having been the toughest time to be LGBTI or a human rights defender in Zambia. Is the world so desperate for a miracle that they will believe anything they read without doing their own research? On the other hand, could the chilling realisation that keeps me awake at night be on point – does nobody give a damn about the Zambian LGBTI community. I know it is not the citizenry that will not stop to sacrifice their fellow brother or sister for a kwacha or personal appeasement, it is not even the global south or the enabling north.

It’s time for Zambian LGBTI persons who live the realities to take up their own struggle and in so doing become their own heroes – because they are none left. When they come for you, no one will come to your rescue, petitions will be written in your name without success, people will live their lives and move on. The world will not stop turning for you. It did not stop for James and Philip, it has not stopped for you and I, it’s only when our voice reaches critical mass that we will be heard – as a collective. I pray I am wrong, in the name of whatever deity humanity believes in, I hope am wrong.

By Juliet Mphande.

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

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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!