Maverick Citizen: Southern Africa: Human Rights Roundup #20

Covid-19 and LGBTQ women in southern Africa – a test for universal human rights

Covid-19 and LGBTQ women in southern Africa – a test for universal human rights
The author argues that African culture can also offer a solution to homosexual nonacceptance, namely a moral theory that allows people to embrace both their sexual being and their cultural being. (Graphic: Supplied)

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

The roundup is a collaboration between the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen.

Since March 2020, governments in southern Africa have imposed lockdown measures to control the spread of Covid-19 in the sub-region. The measures include the deployment of police and soldiers, with an apparent mandate to ensure that citizens stay at home, and, in some cases, obey curfew. Many instances of law enforcement have been heavy handed and violent.

Regulations have generally overlooked the safety and social concerns of people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBTQ) communities who indicate that lockdowns have, in most instances, lacked due consideration for their safeguards and been devoid of social care measures appropriate to their needs.

For example, in Zimbabwe the lack of reliable and affordable social services and utilities has affected the LGBTQ community. One of the key public health prevention messages that governments have pushed is frequent hand washing for a minimum of 20 seconds with running water and soap. Yet, as Caroline Mudzengi, programmes manager at the LGBTQ feminist collective Voice of the Voiceless (VOVO) observes, government has failed to reliably supply water to homes in her neighborhood in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

“Where there is no water there is no option B. When the electricity goes, you make a plan. You light a fire. You get gas or a solar panel and carry on. But with water there is no option B,” Mudzengi explains.

Data available from the UN agency for women, UNWomen, says that women and girls are responsible for fetching and providing water in up to 80% of water deprived households worldwide. The data is, however, not disaggregated by sexual orientation or gender identity; it fails to illuminate how lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex women are affected by gendered norms such as the unpaid labour of fetching water coupled with homophobic practices.

This gap in data cannot be ignored if  governments, who have globally committed to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030”, are to attain this target. The multiple forms of discrimination faced by lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex women mean this is an urgent priority goal for governments to achieve.

It is for this reason that, in 2010, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) defined – in a report to the UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/16/44) – Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) as women, and any other human rights defenders, who work in the defence of women’s rights or on gender issues.

Women human rights defenders are seen as challenging traditional notions of womanhood, family and gender roles in the society, which can lead to hostility by the general population and authorities

For lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women, fetching water from communal boreholes or water sources can be dangerous. Especially in countries like Zimbabwe where the former president Robert Mugabe publicly expressed a hardline position in violent opposition to LGBTQ people, whom he labelled in denigrating, contemptuous and animist terms. His messages resonated across the region and were echoed by others who shared his perspectives.

VOVO, which operates as a feminist collective of LGBTQ women, was founded on 13 September 2013. Mudzengi notes that in the face of failing and poor public amenities and services, families are being required to function as a “social cushion”. Yet for lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women, the family is often as complex as it is unsafe. 

“We have sour relations with our families and this eliminates your support system,” says Mudzengi. In the Covid-19 lockdown context, “friends and your chosen family are forcibly removed from you. You end up being the constant reminder and embarrassment in that neighborhood. 

“In many ways, we are unable to carry on existing and find it difficult to continue. The lack of psycho-social support and emotional support has grave consequences for us. It’s a very tense time and a lot of people are finding it hard to cope,” she explains.  

In addition to very weak social services, healthcare delivery systems and municipal supply mechanisms, the precariousness faced by unemployment entrenches the multiple risks and burdens LGBTQ women are confronting through their activism and activist networks.

Southern Africa already has a high unemployment rate. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that one out of every five young people were “not in employment, education or training in 2019”, with young women being the most affected by this pattern of structural joblessness and economic deprivation. 

As Mudzengi notes: “A lot of our members are in the informal sector. When borders closed, they had limited to no food because their business and work is tied to cross-border work and travelling. 

“Sources of income have dwindled. People who had moved out of their homes and were financially independent have had to end their relationships and move back to their respective families. A lot is being demanded from families in a general sense.”

For Jay Dlamini, Director of House of Our Pride based in Manzini, Eswatini, Covid-19 has brought multiple difficulties.

“Workwise, it has been difficult but we have been able to meet virtually, online. I am the director; I have to be in the office regularly and our team is working mostly from home. Unfortunately our outreach workers, who do most of our condom distribution work and undertake our more personal one-on-one meetings, have not been able to work as much as before. 

“It has really affected me personally because we had to lay off people because of Covid-19… and to be a leader and have to figure out how to do this has been difficult, but we are pulling through,” she says.

Formed in 2010, House of Our Pride is the first LGBTQ organisation in Eswatini. It was registered formally in 2017 as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that focuses on providing support to the community. The organisation has more than 500 registered members who take part in its activities.

Beyond work, Dlamini enjoys the love and support of her girlfriend, who has been a source of comfort and strength during this difficult time. The two have stood by each other and are finding ways to overcome the hardships. 

Dlamini says her girlfriend stopped working due to layoffs caused by Covid-19 in Eswatini. “So my girlfriend had to move to be with her family, so she is now on the other side of the country and, you know, it means the lovelife has been affected.”

Dlamini’s own family life is facing additional stress and pressure as she has become the dominant breadwinner.

“I stay with my granny,” she explains: “I am the only one who is working and I have to juggle everything, especially  food and making sure people are taken care of. As a lesbian woman working in spaces where you have to be defensive and explain yourself all the time, its very challenging. You have to be the support system. It’s hard.”

In Zambia, Mino Likwasi of the Zambian Women’s Alliance for Equality, an organisation which focuses on promoting the human rights and well-being of LGBTQ, non-binary and gender non-conforming persons (GNCP), says Covid-19 has brought several challenges, including loss of employment, to the fore. 

Likwasi explains: “A couple of companies and businesses had to downsize. This has meant that former workers could not keep their accommodation and have had to go and live with friends or family.”

The Zambian Women’s Alliance for Equality has had to pause or reconfigure its activities. “A lot of services, as well as queer-friendly clinics, are not open full time. We are concerned about the mental health side of things. We had a little project that we were running – the Sunflower Project – where we are getting reports about increasing levels of anxiety, depression and isolation because of Covid19 lockdown,” Likwasi explains, highlighting that the lack of support structures for LGBTQ women is a grave concern.

But, according to Tash Dowell of the Zimbabwe-based Masakhane Collective of  LGBTQ women, they have been organising responses to Covid-19 using online platforms such as WhatsApp and webinars.

“We want to try to create a platform where women can discuss gender-based violence… where they can be themselves and share and progress in our activities,” says Dowell. 

“We are highlighting issues that LGBTQ women and sex workers face, including issues of livelihoods for our members. These conversations have encouraged more people to participate.” DM/MC

Bella Matambanadzo is a feminist activist and writer from Zimbabwe. She is the Co-Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of The Other Foundation. She writes here in her personal capacity.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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