CAL: A Problem Analysis

Our work at CAL is shaped by an African radical feminist understanding, informed by research, and strengthened by the claiming of social and economic power.

The key barriers to the change we wish to see can be encompassed through  a lack of freedom and autonomy, dignity and equality in society insofar as our bodies and lives are concerned. The state and religious institutions aim to own and control our bodies through the elevation of the status, authority and decision making power of heteronormatively gendered people. The value of bodies and the purposes for which they are intended, who can access and ‘use’ them, and for what purposes, who can authorize such use and the ways that desire and bodies can be deployed are both prescribed, regulated and standardized by these institutions. Non-compliance is vigorously rejected. The ability to make decisions for oneself and one’s own wellbeing and health is constrained, controlled and contained with strong sanctions imposed against those who defy, resist and ignore these boundaries.

Embedded in our ways of working is a power analysis that necessitates that we work with others to build a world where we are all free and enjoy equal access to opportunities and resources and live in dignity. We believe that to change the world, we need to build new ways of working with power. 

Very often organising strategies and analyses are slanted towards ‘freedom from’ narratives, for example, freedom from disease, violence, exploitation, “trafficking” and so on. Solely focusing on ‘freedom from’ narratives leaves us vulnerable to increasing our focus on  violence without actually addressing its root causes and eradicating all its forms. Expanding our efforts to include ‘freedom to’ strategies and analyses allows us to not only name violence, but to also locate its root cause. In relation to sexual violence, for example, we are able to name the violence for what it is and link it to the systemic and patriarchal ownership of sexual decision making exercised by and through heteronormative men. There are currently fewer resources, including money, time, effort and political space for opening up conversation about and opportunities to make real the sexual and gender related rights which are based on the idea of “freedom to”[choose, exercise autonomy].The alliance between states and religious fundamentalist groups is in pursuit of an agenda of economic and political power and in collusion to establish and sustain power blocs. Our control over our own bodies is under attack from the most well-resourced and powerful institutions, opening us up to vulnerabilities and risks and lack of protection from the very institutions from which we would think to seek protection, respect and fulfillment of our rights.

Economic and political interests ensuring the support of religious elites for political elites together with institutional protectionist agendas mean that women who may seek to exchange sex for favors, resources and goods are unable to make these decisions. The state intervenes to protect us from ourselves and our decision making. The problem is also expressed in multiple efforts to criminalise transmission of HIV, refusal to allow entry to people living with HIV into certain countries, the lack of attention to early and forced marriage as well as the criminalisation of the act of seeking and supplying abortion services. These are challenges faced by individuals, groups and communities in both the global north and global south.

Multilateral human rights institutions and intergovernmental spaces are often spaces for tussels between states that seem committed to advancing the right to health and development and closing disparities and gaps in this regard and those who are not. More and more we’ve seen ‘progressive’ states adot language that affirms the autonomy of adults in their interventions. Multilateral human rights institutions, however, are also spaces, albeit quietly so, for trade agreements and continuing economic exploitation and ‘progressive’ states will not push human rights insofar as they deter from their economic ventures, meaning violations will be sustained and the political space to address other sexuality and gender related violations and protection gaps will be constrained. A progressive approach in one respect often, unfortunately also provides cover for states which are violating other rights or discriminating against individuals, groups and communities requiring protection, including on basis related to sexuality and gender, such as sex workers.

From a feminist perspective and based on our own learning and reflections, the challenges faced by persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity are clearly shared by many in the face of deepening misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity and a crisis in democracy and fueled by growing conflicts all in a context of violence, often state sanctioned and militarization. The impacts of these on autonomy is experienced by many, including sex workers,  women and people living with HIV and by those who seek and offer abortion services. They all require addressing by movements, communities and decision makers in all geographies . Autonomy,freedom and bodily integrity are at the core  and it is this that must be addressed, whether its denial is on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity or any other grounds.

The question of autonomy and freedom is the basis of our organizing and the connections between individuals, groups and communities whose autonomy is constrained by legal, policy, institutional and practice interventions must be recognised, strengthened and developed further. This work is social justice work and must be seen as such. It is work needed by all as human sexuality is a reality for all of us.