By Mariam Armisen, QAYN
The Activist School on Gender, Sexuality and Communication: towards Strengthening the Leadership of Queer, Young Women in Francophone West Africa took place in Burkina Faso from 24 to 28 September 2012. This training was a collaboration between the Queer African Youth Networking Centre (QAYN) and Isis International.
This project, the first of its kind in the sub-region brought together eight queer, young activists from Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, and Senegal. The workshop was led by two facilitators, Lalen de Vela from Isis International and Mariam Armisen of QAYN. A rapporteur from Ouagadougou documented the five days training. The overall goal of the training was to deepen individual and organizational agency. The theoretical part of the training used a participatory approach to promote collective work and team spirit. Each day of training had a particular but interlinked theme: day one began with a feminist critical analysis of oppression with a focus on the body, gender, sexuality and power; day two focused on deepening participants knowledge and skills in movement building and broaden; the third day focused on organizational development based on feminist leadership principles and the use of media and communications strategies and tools for social change; the fourth day supported capacity development with a focus on personal safety and well-being of the activists and the fifth was dedicated to the development of a collective action plan.
Throughout the five days, the participants debunked several notions, including those about sex, sexuality, gender, feminism, leadership and activism. In their analysis, it emerged that sexuality is a fundamental human right that should be freely enjoyed by everyone; therefore, African women should be able to exercise their right to their bodies and practice their sexuality, free from social constraints.
In the discussion of women's leadership, Nat Togo said, "It is assumed that women will never have a relevant place ... I'm an engaged activist because I'm tired of working under the coverage of HIV/ AIDS. I want to speak. Because I assure you, when a woman takes a stand in front of an audience, it is powerful to see." To Diane, Founder of Lesbian Life Association Côte d'Ivoire (LLACI), "We had to work hard in Abidjan for today's gains. Homosexuality is no longer a taboo but now why are not women who have sex with women (WSW) advancing in their struggles? Lesbians must persevere, unite and break away from the discourse on HIV/AIDS and assert their leadership."
On the demystification of feminism, the participants engaged in a passionate debate on the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists and their applications within the feminist movement on the continent.
Personal and organizational development were addressed using a feminist critical collaboration lens, which recognizes 1) the existence of diverse sites of power and struggle, and 2) the fact that the global feminist movement(s) are diverse and not – unified---that "women's agencies demand that each of us will make our positions--- on the basis of an adequate analysis of what is happening at that particular political moment." 1
The participants went on to commit to creating and maintaining a network of WSW in the sub-region, and to recognize that a vibrant and efficient network will also require effective communication strategies. They engaged in a critical analysis of the principles of feminist collaboration with a focus on networking, mentoring and communication. To further support the establishment of this network, participants engaged in several exercises, including identifying a spectrum of allies, through a study of a barometer of forces and social groups, spread across the range of key stakeholders, from the more convinced opponents to the most active supporters.
The fourth day of workshop was dedicated to further personal development with an emphasis on safety and well-being of the activists and the development of an action plan to be implemented in their country. The afternoon of the fourth day was devoted to group work where the participants were divided into two groups to develop their action plans.
The fifth day of the training was devoted to presentations of the action plans and the adoption of the most strategic plan. Participants stated that: "We, the participants in the training Gender, Sexuality and Communication: towards Strengthening the Leadership of Queer, Young Women in Francophone West Africa are aware of the lack of recognition and place within the LGBTI and women's movement, of the work of queer women in francophone West Africa. From this conclusion, we are challenging ourselves to create a network of WSW activists in francophone West Africa. As such, our first priority is the establishment of safe spaces to organize, discuss and mobilize among ourselves." The overall objective of the adopted action plan is "Creating safe spaces that will facilitate the gathering of WSW and house our political, personal, cultural and social debates." The participants will have six months to implement the action plan, from November 2012 to April 2013.
Based on participants' observations and reactions, the organizers were reassured of the importance of this type of training. The various activities to be undertaken will contribute to deepening the participants' leadership and strengthening the development of a viable network led by WSW.
Each participant left the training satisfied with both its content and form, notwithstanding the small imperfections. They left more engaged. According to Abi, a participant from Senegal, "The content of the training was exceptional: Feminism, movement-building, leadership, activism, etc. In Senegal, we are afraid of the word feminism. When addressing this issue, people think that feminism encourages women not to marry or those who are, to rebel in their couple. I chose this fight, and I learned a lot through this training. The co-facilitation in two languages also shows that the English language is not to be overlooked in our work. I am very happy. Thank you all."
Since its creation in 1974, Isis International has been committed to achieving Southern women's human rights by increasing their participation and access to media and information and communication technologies (ICTs) as well as facilitating networking and information sharing of women's movements in the Global South. The development of new media and information and communication technologies have drastically changed social mobilization and organizing, as well as movement building and advocacy. The Isis International Activist School (IIAS) for Feminist Development Communications aims to strengthen social movements and advocacies through the strategic use of media and information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to further enhance women's skills and knowledge in communication technologies. It particularly focuses on developing and sharpening skills in community radio, journalism and publication, film, video, theatre, and convergent media technology for networking.
QAYN is the first lesbian-led LGBTQ regional organization in West Africa, with the aim of becoming the hub for LGBTQ youth activists and youth-led movement building. As a loose network with five organizational members to date, the network continues to grow, with the primary goal of building a powerful community and coalition that invests in collective engagement while supporting members to build their skills, self-confidence and capacities. In line with this goal, QAYN has been working for about two years on a project to deepen the leadership of WSW young activists in West Africa. Isis International joined this initiative over a year and half ago to provide its unique expertise in communication and its very specific Southern feminist experiences.
The facilitators used modules from several sources, mainly a selection from Fahamu Movement Building Boot-camp for Queer African Activists (MBBC); Leading to Choices by Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP); Training Tools by New Tactics in Human Rights and some of Isis International's own modules.
This workshop was made possible with funding provided by the Global Fund for Women and Mama Cash. The implementation of the action plan will be supported by Urgent Action Fund Africa.
1 Isis International, Positioning in Global Feminist Critical Collaboration
Bahay ni Isis Women's International House: a Night of Sharing on LGBTQ
By Sara Aguirre Sánchez-Beato, Isis International
As part of the preparations for the Isis International Activist School in collaboration with the Queer African Youth Networking Center (QAYN) in Burkina Faso, one of QAYN's leaders, Mariam Armisen, spent few days at Bahay ni Isis International Women's House in Manila to develop, together with Isis women, the training modules on leadership training of young lesbians, bisexual Francophone West African women.
QAYN is the first lesbian-led LBTQ regional organization in West Africa, where homosexuality and bisexuality is hardly accepted, and its aim is to become the hub for LGBTQ youth activists and youth-led movement building. As Mariam explained, QAYN started as a means to tackle the lack of accurate information for LGBTQ youth in West Africa, by providing an online center. West Africa is to a certain extent isolated from the rest of Africa because of the language barrier – mostly French speaking countries -- and the scarcity of connections with other areas in the continent. The online platform is a way to spread correct information regarding LGBTQ issues and to establish a safe space to connect for LGBTQ youth in West Africa.
After a forum in Lagos, Nigeria, attended by 58 young leaders, new needs were identified, especially the importance of providing direct services, training, peer educators on counseling in sexuality and sexual orientation. The importance of a physical presence also came from the realization that many people in the region do not have regular Internet access. These needs evolved into the goal of providing a platform where young leaders and activists are able to support each other and to break their isolation.
This interesting information was presented by one of the QAYN's leaders at a Night of Sharing held at Bahay ni Isis Women's International House in September 2012. Diverse LBTQ organizations from the Philippines and human rights activists from different countries were invited at the event with the idea of providing a space for the exchange of experiences, strategies and points of view. Members of Rainbow Rights Project and the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) were present, as well as a university professor involved in LGBTQ issues, an intern from Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights and Isis International staff and volunteers.
Members of Rainbow Rights and STRAP shared how both organizations came to be and their evolution. They presented the activities that they are currently implementing, such as policy work and education campaigns, community radio, meetings, talks, trainings and community work. They also referred to the struggles they have been through and how they overcame them, as well as the new challenges they face nowadays. Among the different issues addressed we could highlight STRAP drew the attention about the importance of coining their own name, such as "transpinay" for transsexual women from the Philippines or the differences between countries according to their particular culture and history.
From her part, Mariam from QAYN brought some interesting discussions that, in my opinion, would be important to reflect more upon within the feminist movements, that is, the "class issue" on the one hand, and the focus on policy level versus the community level on the other. Regarding the first one, the intersection between gender and class (and we could add many other variables in addition to these two) should be taken into consideration because, while information and awareness are very important, it is also important to contemplate the possibilities that the people have according to their particular situation. Regarding transsexuality for instance, STRAP affirmed that many poor people in the Philippines do not know they are transsexual, they just live their lives as gay men. How far do we bring this consciousness if then they will not have the means to pay for an operation? Which raises another question: is it really necessary to undergo the operation to be transsexual? On the other hand, the priority of QAYN is currently working at the community level, community organizing, movement building and fostering the leadership and activism of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, rather than at the policy consciousness-raising.
These and other questions were discussed in this enriching night of sharing of which I had the chance to be a privileged listener. Considering the words of the QAYN leader – words that were wise, intelligent, passionate, positive, full of sense of justice, sensitivity and respect for the diversity of human beings and their realities, I was sure that the Activist School in Burkina Faso would be a success and that many positive things would come out of this initiative. This first lesbian-led LGBTQ network in West Africa has a special potential within it and is very inspirational for human rights activists all over the world – at least it has been for me. Keep on weaving solidarities around the globe, connecting people and working for the human right to happiness!