On the 24th of April 2021, the Coalition of Lesbians (CAL), was invited to facilitate and participate in the Global Youth Summit (GYS) which ran from the 23rd to the 25th of April 2021. CAL, in conjunction with four phenomenal African feminists, moderated by Varyanne Sika (Research and Knowledge Production Manager at CAL), hosted a breakout session titled, “LGBTQIA+ Feminist Advocacy and Well-being during COVID-19 and beyond: Insights from Africa.” The full video of the breakout session can be viewed here and below is a summary of the exciting, interactive and informative session.
The breakout session’s panel was graced by four feminists from different parts of the African continent who all do varying feminist activism and advocacy work in their personal and professional capacities.
From Nigeria, Jennifer Iwela is a business process analyst and entrepreneur. She is also the founder and Executive Director (ED) of One Action Foundation. The foundation was started in the hopes of advocating for LGBTQIA+ youth rights and most recently, through funding efforts, One Action Foundation was able to provide COVID 19 essentials to 133 LGBTQIA+ youth. She is especially passionate about social justice awareness for the LGBTQI+ community.
Mariella Eunice Ishimwe, from Rwanda, joined the breakout session in her capacity as an independent researcher in development economics focusing on gender equality, inclusion macroeconomics, program design for LBTQ folks and evaluation. Eunice has worked in Kigali, Rwanda with several groups and most recently she has worked with a collective feminist collective in Rwanda that established the first all black women library. Additionally, she supports the ‘Knitting Sisters,’ a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on supporting teenage mothers in Kigali.
From Zambia, we were joined by Mino Likwasi, the founder and Programs & Operations Manager at Women’s Alliance for Equality (WAFE). They work specifically on sexual and reproductive health rights, mental health and wellbeing, and economic strengthening for LBTQ persons. In the past, Mino has worked with FHI360 and HIVOS for the delivery of services and programs to LBTQ persons. Currently, they are on the board of trustees of The Other Foundation, the African Queer Youth Initiative as well as the board of Pepeta, a national grouping of Zambian feminists.
Last but not least, we were joined by Tiffany Kagure Mugo from Kenya. She is the co-founder and curator of HOLAA! which is a Pan Africanist hub that chronicles and provides information about sex and sexuality On the African context. Tiffany is a columnist, podcast host of ‘Basically Life’ and author of the book, ‘Quirky Quick Guide to Having Sex.’
To kick start the session, all panelists were asked about how they were feeling amidst the pandemic, both personally and within the context of their work. Their responses were as follows:
Jennifer: “I just think this ‘new normal’ has been really difficult [particularly with] having to work from home, not being able to live your social life the normal way you would. Movement has proven to be a challenge, too. For myself and my teammates, we constantly check up [on one another] in an attempt to ensure that everyone is doing well. In terms of the work and how that experience has been during the pandemic,it has been difficult. The experience of those in the LGBTQI+ community has been different; this is because we are already marginalised and now there’s a newfound layer of financial and psychological distress as a result of the pandemic.
Six months into the pandemic, we conducted a survey with over 300 people on the well-being of queer folks which revealed that 97% of the participants have had their lives gravely impacted by the pandemic – financially because of job losses, psychologically because of having to quarantine and/or isolate with homophobic family members and feelings of suicidal ideation, many others have been displaced due to the loss of their homes. Essentially, the feeling is that the lives of queer Nigerians don’t matter. Attempts have been made to provide psychological support as well as safe housing to those affected.”
Tiffany: “One of the things I know I’m very lucky with is that I get to isolate with my partner who is also kind of my best friend so we’ve done really weird stuff like make forts and make random tales of things we find in the house but like the way Jennifer said, it has been weird to adjust to the ‘new normal’. But I think with us one of the things that again we’re very lucky with is a lot of our work is digitally based so there wasn’t that mega shift in terms of the work that we do because with HOLAA!, we’re doing Instagram, producing podcasts and other digital content.
We found that people engaged a lot more. People already engaged a lot but they engaged a lot more because people were isolated and they just needed that space. and Due to a lot of physical spaces being taken away, they shifted to the digital space. It’s just been generally quite weird. We wanted to make a documentary and we were going to go to Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda but that got put on hold because of the travel restrictions. Ultimately, it became a case of pivoting and figuring out what else in order to ensure that we constantly produce content. A lot of our work is like the ‘sorority girls’ within the queer community and so we are very whismical and light on our Instagram & Tik Tok.
This year, we decided to produce a book of essays around sex and sexuality and just have people write about the sex they’re having or not having, we’re doing a mini series as well. We just aim to produce content and constantly ensure that digital spaces are infiltrated. We started posting a lot more because people have a lot more time on their hands and it’s just been a very, very heavy time in a very weird time so we’ve tried to still bring lightness and humour.”
Eunice: “When the pandemic hit Rwanda, I was working with the ‘Sister Circle Collective’ and what we did at the time was provide safe spaces for girls, teenagers and even those within the ages of 20 to 30 years. We would host panels and discuss different topics like mental health, sexual reproductive health rights, and we had the library. The library is no longer open due to COVID restrictions and so people can’t get books and likewise, we are unable to share the books.
Additionally, a lot of our initiatives came to a halt and we had to re-strategize now [on] how to reach people, how to get to people and we started using Instagram and having Instagram lives . We barely coped but personally meditation helped, as did journaling and taking walks. I have been finding ways to find purpose and practice self-preservation because I feel like we don’t stress self preservation enough. We tend to emphasize self care and we don’t stress the importance of self-preservation even though self preservation is what makes [self-care] sustainable so I had to redefine that for myself and pause. Since departing from the ‘Sister Circle’ late last year, I have embarked on a journey to find myself and continue the [social justice] work through research and enrolling in different courses around gender inequality.”
Mino: “I think I relate with many of the things that my fellow panelists have said and shout out to Tiffany, HOLAA! has definitely kept me very entertained amidst all this craziness. It’s been a time that’s been quite stressful. I think a lot of anxiety emanates from the pandemic being unfamiliar territory and there’s all this uncertainty around what tomorrow will look like. There’s questions around who is going to be affected – ‘Am I going to be affected by this?’, ‘Is my immediate family okay’, etc.
That kind of worrying has translated to the team and how we work, particularly the mental health side of things. It’s been a difficult time and we did try to do a little bit of work around supporting our community with supplies, foodstuffs and the like but I think what we’re trying to plan around is how we can continue the work in a way that’s sustainable; we can give people a little care pack that’s going to be done in maybe two to three weeks but then after that what happens? With that in mind, our work has been centred around trying to find sustainable solutions for the community.
At a personal level, it has forced me to put in a lot of work with self care. I think I might be a workaholic, my mind is not at peace when it is still but then finding myself in this situation forced me to prioritize my own self care and to take things a little bit slower and make sure I’m actually OK to be doing work because it takes a toll over time and I think that’s something that a lot of activists need to actually start prioritizing – taking things easy and taking care of ourselves. If we’re not okay then how are we going to do the [necessary] work that we want to be doing for our communities.
The positive side has also been this realization that we need to take better care of ourselves.”
CAL and Well-Being
The Coalition of African Lesbians has been particularly interested in conversations and discourse around well-being within feminist activism in Africa. In 2017, UHAI-Eshri held the ‘Changing Faces, Changing Spaces’ conference where CAL hosted a pre-conference with around 30 – 40 activists from all across Africa to discuss their priorities during the course of their gender and sexual rights activism. The topic of well-being was widely raised and concerns were shared. The activists expressed a deep disdain for the passive nature of well-being work within organisations and wanted more meaningful interventions as opposed to the occasional yoga slot. More can be read about the conference here.
CAL is additionally in the process of finalizing a research project on well being in feminist activism in Africa. The report will be shared widely once ready for publication.
Following the first question which sought to understand the panelists’ experiences during the pandemic, they were further asked to interrogate well-being; their own and the work surrounding well-being in their activism work.
Mino: “The mental health and wellness theme in our programs is something that I think we recently started prioritizing. Prior to that a lot of our work was very SRHR driven because donors say the funds are [specifically] for SRHR. I think a lot of people did not want to spend money on wellness or well-being because it didn’t seem like something important but I think that’s something that we’ve started to prioritize in our work and one way that we’ve been doing that is having LBQ centred conversations. I think in a lot of work that we do, you have tables and projectors and facilitators and that’s all very formal, so this idea came and it’s just bringing together women, just have your chairs. If you have a little bit of wine or some juice or whatever, and just let people have an honest conversation about whatever topic we have agreed on. So each month we would have one of those conversations and it would have a theme. One month we would talk about loneliness, the next month we would talk about pleasure and just have people have the space to honestly discuss things in a very open space, judgment free and I think it’s something that became quite popular even amongst our beneficiaries. We found that most people prefer that as opposed to actually coming into a workshop or training because those are exhausting.
I’ve been trying to facilitate some support groups – this had to be done virtually because COVID and the regulations that were on and off. In the group, people discuss the issues and that’s a program that we had been invited to collaborate with New Foundation; an institution that solely focuses on mental health issues. We are hoping to revamp these support groups.
Pride [month] is something that’s been big for us and it was very unfortunate that we couldn’t do it last year. Over the last two years we held the first ever pride events in Lusaka and the first one was very small. I think people were trying to see how it would go – would it be safe for people, would there be arrests, etc. We had like 40 people at the first one and the second one that we had in 2019, we had between 150 and 170 people so I think the word got around from the first one that it was OK and people found this to be a safe space and so that’s something that we’re trying to make sure happens every year. I think we are learning how to cope amidst the pandemic now so we’re actually in the process of planning this year’s event.”
Jennifer: “At One Action Foundation, aside from providing essential materials to the queer community, we usually have a mini workshop program where we have all queer folks come together and we share our views and insights on a particular topic, for example about self love, and self care – that was something we had started in December 2019 and then the pandemic happened so we couldn’t really do a lot again because we couldn’t physically congregate. To curb this challenge, we leveraged on the use of social media platforms. We also have conversations around suicide prevention, anxiety, depression. We also have a mini mental health toolkit for people to get informed. Last year we had the first virtual pride – ‘Nganga.’ I wasn’t expecting people to log in because I thought people were going to get scared but luckily we had over 80 participants. We had different activities from speaking to therapists, to having couples sharing how they’ve coped during the pandemic and now we plan to make that a yearly event which will be held during the month of June. We’ve just been basically looking for ways to push information out there that has to do with mental health and well being.
Recently, we conducted a survey in order to understand the needs of queer people. We have applied for various funding to assist with these identified needs. We aim to provide at least 5 sessions for them for a period of two to twelve weeks and hopefully if we get that funding then that would be a step in the right direction in terms of helping people when it comes to their mental health and well being. It’s very difficult but we’re trying the best that we can at the moment.”
The panelists were subsequently asked to reflect on any strategies they have employed during the pandemic that have proven successful in their gender and sexuality rights activism:
Tiffany: “For us collaboration is a really crucial thing. We love squad goals. With every project that we do, we always make sure that there’s a whole bunch of partners involved. Currently, the book is a collaboration between folks from the USA and another South African organization called FemProject. We have contributors from all over the continent – from Zambia, eSwatini, Kenya and Uganda. Collaboration is the bread and butter of HOLAA! because we can’t do this alone and also because we’re digital and we want to do work across different contexts and countries and meet new people. We tap into our networks and make sure we support our networks as well by sharing their events, news and developments. It’s all about collaboration for us.”
Eunice: “What we do is three-fold; first we identify the needs because before we design a program, we need to know what the needs are on the ground. Secondly, we examine our own capacity – what we are able to do, essentially and lastly, having a variety of interactions about various cross-cutting issues. We also try to keep things lively, for example we’ve had DJs play their sets which is a balance from the feminist theory conversations which are of equal importance. We try to identify the different groups of people that we want to reach and create tailor made programs. We constantly assess our capacity and equip ourselves with tools to be able to continue working, for example taking short courses.”
Jennifer: “Besides using social media platforms for advocacy, one of the things that we do is carry out surveys (research) Doing so allows us to understand where everyone’s mindset is at the moment. We are also big on partnership because One Action Foundation is a really small organization and so collaboration is key for us for purposes of growth and expanding our network.”
Mino: “I think something that has worked quite well for us is social media mobilization. Our organization is also pretty small and digital organizing is not our strongest area but the story on why we were formed was because we noticed that within the broader LGBT movement, during activities, [whether there’s activities happening or meetings], there would be 50 gay men, 2 lesbian women and one bisexual person. It was like, “Is it just us [queer women]? Where’s everybody else?” That’s the biggest reason why the organization was formed so I think social media for us really worked so well. We are able to provide resources to people in all of the Zambian provinces.
I think using social media for mobilization and using social networks is effective. I also think the biggest part of that has also been ensuring that you provide security because social media can be very risky. And the visibility for the LBTQ women that we work with potentially endangers them. Ensuring that we provide that platform for people to be able to engage with each other online while protecting their safety is a crucial balance for us.”
Finally, the women were asked to share their thoughts on the future of feminist and LGBTQIA+ organising amidst challenges presented by COVID-19:
Jennifer: “We have to leverage other avenues, such as social media. We need to collaborate. We need queer centred programs that are intersectional in their approach. We need program that focus on women on the margins such as sex workers, women living with disabilities, etc.”
Tiffany: “I think what I’ve seen is that there’s a lot more space for a lot more actors. A lot of people have started thinking about how they can get involved in advocacy. I think one of the most powerful things that I saw during the pandemic was different people rallying to figure out the ways to get resources to queer folks. It’s good to see people taking up space within advocacy because historically advocacy had been taken up by a lot of big names and we all know this from our respective countries. There’s those who came first and 20 years later they are still the ones doing the work and hogging space. I think the pandemic has shown that there’s a lot more space for a lot more actors and a lot more people doing a lot more innovative things. I see people starting blogs, podcasts and general online organising. It’s also really exciting to know that a lot more people are getting involved in advocacy in their communities.”
Eunice: “I think the future calls for most strategic thinking and application in what we want to do. We have to be more focused Secondly, we need to fill the knowledge gap within the queer community. Not all of us are going to delve into the digital space but we need queer researchers and lawyers and strategists.We need interdisciplinary abilities and organising skills. I also think that the weight is on the organizers to be more strategic. As the queer community, we need to stand together to provide support for one another. We cannot leave those living in the rural areas behind during our sexual and gender rights organizing.”
Mino: “Health is wealth and I think a lot of investment has been done in health services and issues to do with access, availability etc but I think going forward, we need to adopt a mindset that the queer community is more than HIV, more than STIs. We need to start approaching these issues from a humanity point of view. I’m personally very passionate about mental health and well being programs, sustained livelihood, economic strengthening initiatives and the like. This is because a lot of the times people have this perception that queer people are perpertually asking for favors or special treatment. We need to recognise that being queer is not a disability. We have to start developing ourselves. We have to start building our own capacity. We need to be able to compete favorably without expecting someone to do us a favor just because we are marginalised. Let’s shift our focus to also kind of think of those things; developing ourselves, developing the people that we work with and for but most importantly taking care of our minds because a sick mind would definitely lead to a sick body.”
From the breakout session and the views expressed by the panelists, it is clear that COVID-19 has completely altered the manner in which feminist activsim is conducted in Africa. The effects of the pandemic have impacted the panelists not only in their personal lives but also in the way they mobilise around gender and sexuality rights.
While it has been a challenging time allround, the activists have shown resilience in the face of adversity and have tapped into social media platforms as a tool for activism. They have also taken the time to immerse themselves in the maintenance of their well-being and truly examine how to better take care of themselves and their communities.
A key takeaway from the session was the grave importance of collaboration amongst activists. The panelists have shown that the possibilities are endless when we share information, learn from one another and do it all in feminist solidarity.
The Coalition of African Lesbians is grateful for all the women’s insights, perspectives and recommendations. We look forward to many more eye-opening and riveting discussions around well-being and feminist activism in Africa.
Special Note: Stay tuned for CAL’s first report on well-being in feminist activism in Africa.