LGBTI and sex-worker communities are ostracised in most African countries. Speaking out and living free is often hindered by the law and its misapplication. A session at the Changing Faces, Changing Spaces Conference looked at how to get around this.
Law enforcement officer: “What are your rights as sex workers?”
Daisy Nakato: “What is the right of a doctor, or of anyone else? Rights don’t change according to each citizen.”
Nakato is the Executive Director of the Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA) in Uganda. She spoke in June at the Regional Changing Faces, Changing Spaces (CFCS VI) Conference. A panellist at the Sticks and Stones – Organising in Restricted Space session, she recalled just one of the baffling interactions she keeps having with her fellow countrymen. She addressed the attendees at a plenary session at the conference.
Convened in a remote location in Kenya, the conference offered participants, partners and delegates – most of whom were part of the LGBTI and sex-worker communities – the opportunity to feel safe and secure in an intolerant country – a discourtesy often extended to the continent-at-large.
The three-day conference consisted of plenaries, parallel sessions, workshops, screenings, discussions and other activities designed especially to encourage dialogue at the event.
Nakato spoke to the issue of the law which currently criminalises sex work under section 137 and 138 of the penal code. The work is defined as illegal because it acts against the “interest of all Ugandans”.
With the right to organise stifled as well because of the “restriction of the right to freedom of association, this keeps organisations from public gatherings,” says Nakato. She further explains why this is problematic for what she does, saying, “It’s difficult to run away from public gatherings with the nature of our organisation’s work. We need to alert the authorities every time we want to meet.”
Just across the border, south of Uganda, citizens in Tanzania face similar struggles. One participant stated that with the new government a lot of discrimination issues have arisen – ones that aren’t necessarily specific to the LGBTI community. Last year saw the arrest of about 1 000 sex workers in Tanzania.
These issues aren’t isolated but are happening across the continent. Just a few months ago a group of 85 sex workers were arrested without cause in Zambia. These instances barely make the headlines. They barely cause a flutter, because communities understand these violations as justifiable, and are thus acceptable.
A comment from an Ethiopian participant spoke to the highly restricted media space under which they operate. This, because the media is owned by the government, so by default citizens are denied the opportunity to speak out about issues seen to be opposing government. As a result a law is being implemented where one found to be obstructing justice in this way can be arrested for up to six months.
The clampdown is systematic but it doesn’t stop here.
“No organisation is willing to help the community when they face legal issues,” the participant said.
“As an activist organisation in Ethiopia you can only be a local NGO. Ninety per cent of your funding must come from within the country.” This is problematic because the state won’t offer such funding to said organisations. The participant continued that it’s near impossible to get an international license for an NGO.
“The government often feels threatened by activist organisations and the work they do. With the electoral crisis we went through, there have been many restrictions.
We have a law which limits civil access to funds. All funds must pass through the central bank. Before withdrawing there needs to be justification for what funds will be used for.”
It seems some governments are opposing freedom of speech at every turn. They added: “We try to use the internet for this problem. It’s been helpful. We had a state of emergency recently and the internet was shut down. Even now it gets shut down.”
With the oppression manufactured to be subtle and systematic, while also violent and visceral, it’s difficult to see a way around it – a way out. But as the session outline stated: despite the challenges of our lived realities and hostile environment the movements continue to endure, which is testament to the resilience inspired by necessity. And so albeit difficult, and sometimes even fatal, the work of equal rights for all continues simply because it must.