In 2008, when the Coalition of African Lesbians applied for observer status at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), we did so with the expectation that a progressive rights document such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights would prevail.
It came as a shock when, two years later, the commission rejected the coalition’s application in a letter, stating: “The ACHPR decided, after a vote, not to grant observer status to the Coalition for African Lesbians, South Africa, whose application had been pending before it. The reason being that the activities of the said organisation do not promote and protect any of the rights enshrined in the African Charter.”
What the rejection letter didn’t say was that the commission’s decision had everything to do with the work on sexuality and gender the organisation has done at the commission and on the continent. The name alone – the Coalition of African Lesbians – unashamedly declared the presence of an alternative sexuality on the African continent, with the intention to mobilise movements politically and for the appropriation of social, political and intellectual space by women who are perceived to be on the margins of the marginalised.
The commission had indicated time and again that sexuality and gender are human rights that, it seems to believe, should remain on the periphery of rights discourses. In this real (certainly not imagined) hierarchy of rights, sexuality, gender and, to a large extent, the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women sit squarely at the bottom of this structure.
At the time, the coalition met the requirements necessary for observer status but the request was denied. Now, seven years later, the coalition has finally been granted observer status at the commission – a hard-won victory.
Since the 2008 application and the subsequent rejection of the coalition’s observer status, the continent has become an increasingly hostile place for interaction and lobbying to do with the rights and demands of nonconforming gender and trans-identifying African women and men. The conversations within and demands by civil society organisations for states to recognise the sexual autonomy of citizens, in the face of an increasing number of African states seeking to criminalise same-sex desire, went ignored.
Inaction by states was seen as an unofficial way to endorse violent acts meted out by citizens against fellow citizens with real or perceived differences in sexual orientation or the expression of gender identity that differed from the socially accepted heteronormative binary.
The sexuality and gender rights of African women and men was, and continues to be, in a state of crisis, and the commission should be a space in which organisations and individuals can present the cases and situations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identifying and intersex persons to policy and state representatives mandated to ensure the safety and security of all their citizens.
In August 2014, the coalition decided to reapply for observer status. This followed the passing of Resolution 275 (on protection against violence and other human rights violations against persons on the basis of their real or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity) during the commission’s 55th ordinary session, held in April last year in Luanda.
This resolution was historical because, for the first time, the commission recognised that human rights related to and about sexual orientation and gender identity are rights worth recognising and protecting – and are rights enshrined in the African Charter itself.
This set the stage for more lobbying and advocacy to do with the state of rights relating to sexuality and gender on the continent – and the huge gaps that exist in country frameworks, making it difficult for women and men targeted and abused by society and, in some cases, the state, to seek recourse.
At the commission’s 54th ordinary session, held in October 2013 in Banjul in The Gambia, the Coalition of African Lesbians and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights released a report, titled Violence Based on Perceived or Real Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Africa, that looked at ways in which members of so-called sexual minorities were being maltreated and oppressed. The report provided a much-needed reality check for the commission.
Now that the coalition has been granted observer status at the commission, what next?
The assumption in such situations is often that this will translate into immediate and visible change for nonconforming gender and trans-identifying African women and men. But this is never the case: the work has only just begun.
As we have done for the past 10 years, the coalition will continue to demand, defy, resist and speak on many and intersecting rights issues that need to be voiced at the commission and in manifold other spaces.
Sheena Magenya is a media adviser to the Coalition of African Lesbians