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All Africa symposium on HIV/Aids and human rights for lgbts: lgbt stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender--people.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) people from 16 African countries representing 22 lgbt organisations met in Johannesburg in February for the All Africa Symposium on HIV/Aids and Human Rights. Since many of the 55 delegates had concerns about confidentiality, the conference was not widely advertised and there was no media presence.

Much time was spent on identifying the issues affecting people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and in Africa and how these impact on their lives. During this exercise participants had the opportunity to share experiences of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their respective countries. The main issues identified were the following:

Legal and state related oppression

Most African countries still have oppressive laws (inherited from colonial Europe) that criminalise sexual conduct between people of the same sex. Lgbt people all over Africa experience the violation of their basic human rights through police harassment, violence, intimidation and even death in countries like Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia. Antigay propaganda and censorship of lgbt issues are the order of the day.

Access to health services

With the exception of South Africa, African lgbt communities are totally excluded when it comes to the fight against HIV and Aids. Even basic health care services are denied to the lgbt community through the poor attitude of health-care workers who choose to ridicule and humiliate gay people seeking medical attention. This forces gay people to rather stay away and stay sick or infected than to look for help. Many of these problems are due to the lack of information and rigid values and norms on the part of health workers, which adversely affect lgbt people and other vulnerable groups. It remains the responsibility of lgbt organisations to provide the necessary information, eradicate ignorance and promote tolerance and acceptance.

Religious condemnation and social rejection

All over Africa and the world lgbt people are ostracised in the name of religion, a practice that greatly contributes to the social rejection of and discrimination against lgbt people. However, delegates with strong religious backgrounds did agree that all religions share the fundamental values of love, tolerance, respect and neighbourliness, and that homophobia springs from the tendency of religious people to read selectively and to interpret religious scripts to reinforce their own prejudices.

It was agreed that in order to address these issues, lgbt people and in particular lgbt organisations in Africa needed information, capacity building, support from allies and access to resources. They also needed to give attention to the particular needs of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. Currently lgbt organisations are not very different from the broader society when it comes to discrimination against women.

More established lgbt organisations such as The Rainbow Project in Namibia (trp), Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), Behind The Mask (BTM) in Johannesburg, South Africa and Livelihood Development in Uganda shared their successes and challenges in order for other groups to learn from them. This took place in the form of panel discussions and presentations on themes like organising, activism, campaigning and networking. Organisations also had the opportunity to devise regional and country strategic plans of action.

One of the highlights was a presentation by Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). TAC is a movement in South Africa that campaigns for affordable drugs for people living with HIV and Aids. In December 1998 anti-retroviral treatment cost R4500 per month in South Africa. In August 2003 it only cost R273 per month because of the work of TAC. In addition to this, the SA Government in November 2003 began to roll out anti-retroviral treatment to all South Africans. In order to take the work of the TAC beyond the borders of South Africa and to build regional momentum around access to affordable treatment, the Pan-Africanist Treatment Access Movement (PATAM) was developed out of the work of TAC.

It was agreed that the most important step for lgbt organisations in Africa is to make certain that existing HIV/Aids service organisations take the lgbt community into account in their campaigns. Aids is also rampant amongst lgbt communities all over the world and it is the responsibility of lgbt organisations to make people see that it not a heterosexual or a gay disease, but an illness that affects the whole of humanity.

A regional gathering of PATAM took place in March in Harare, Zimbabwe, on The Scaling Up Of Access To Treatment For Southern Africa. Trp of Namibia and GALZ of Zimbabwe were present at the PATAM Conference and they particularly stressed the inclusion of men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women in the work and campaigns of HIV/Aids service organisations.

Using the law to campaign for human rights

In most African societies it is difficult for lgbt people to fight for equality through the courts as the issues surrounding lgbt rights are often emotionally-laden, so that judgements are not objective from a legal point of view, but value-based. Fair judgement should take into account the views of a monitory, and not only focus on the values of the majority. These were the sentiments expressed by Derek Matyszak, a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe during his presentation. It became clear that lgbt organisations will have to do a lot of advocacy and lobbying of existing national and international bodies, including the African Commission and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights so that they take lgbt rights issues on board.

All Africa Rights Initiative

Towards the end attention was given to the founding of the All Africa Rights Initiative (AARI), a network of lgbt organisations across the continent. This network will aim to take forward the objectives of the conference, and in particular to support African lgbt organisations to develop effective strategies to suit their different situations.

An interim committee was elected, whose main task is the development of a constitution for AARI. The committee comprises six members, a male and a female representative for each of the three regions present, namely Southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa. The interim committee was elected for a period of two years, after which an executive body for AARI will be elected. The All Africa Symposium will be repeated in Senegal for French speaking Africa, where representatives will be elected to serve on the board of AARI.

The Women's Caucus Session

It was apparent from the start of the Symposium that women's issues once again were placed on the backburner, since only two and a half hours out of the entire programme were allocated to issues that affect women. The female delegates came together and decided to appeal for more time on the programme. Since the programme was already packed, it was only possible to allocate another three hours to separate male and female caucus sessions.

Despite the limited space, the women had the opportunity to discuss issues such as the prevalence of HIV and Aids amongst lbt women; violence against lbt women; sexism and racism in lgbt organisations; the need for economic empowerment programmes; and reproductive health issues, to name a few.

A topic of particular importance was the way forward for the recently formed African Lesbian Association, whose name was changed to African Lesbian Alliance (ALA).

After a brainstorming session during which the situations of lbt women in the different regions were examined, it was decided that ALA should focus on the following:

* support different organisations, especially newly formed groups, in the form of skills sharing, training and internship programmes,

* research issues affecting lbt women, especially Aids,

* establish economic empowerment programmes,


* provide training in sexuality, gender and human rights,

* establish increased lesbian visibility,

* raise awareness and sensitivity amongst gay men about lbt issues,

* mainstream lbt issues into the struggle for equality for all women,

* Initiate/strengthen collaboration with other women's and human rights organisations,

* promote the idea of black African 'womanism' as opposed to Western feminism.

ALA and AARI will complement each other in building a strong lgbt movement in Africa. It will however be ALA's responsibility to see that women are properly represented on the executive body of AARI and that the needs of women are catered for.

Next in the pipeline for ALA is a meeting of lbt minds towards the middle of July this year where an interim committee will be chosen to put its structures into place. With The Rainbow Project in Namibia as the coordinating organisation, this means that the meeting will happen in Namibia.

It was the first time ever that lgbt Africans from across the continent met on African soil to share experiences, strategise and socialise. This made the symposium a historic event. The presence of so many African men and women who defied all odds in order to start organisations and who told the stories of their struggles and victories as lgbt people in Africa, belies the notion that homosexuality is a Western import and un-African.

RELATED ARTICLE: The purpose of the symposium was:

* To help new lgbt organisations to organise, in order to fight HIV/Aids and to raise the profile of lgbt people in Africa

* To strengthen regional networking

* To develop regional strategies for securing human rights for lgbt people in Africa.

Story by Madelene Isaacks
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Author:Isaacks, Madelene
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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