Reporting LGBT rights violations – a journey to lasting change
For the past two years PITCH partners in Zimbabwe began documenting human rights violations against men who have sex with men and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Since then, meticulously collected evidence is helping to create change in people’s everyday lives and an increasing number of policy makers have started to listen to their requests.
“The project came about when we were mobilising men who have sex with men [MSM] to access health services, helping them with STI management and HIV testing and treatment,” says Samuel Matsikure, Programme Manager at GALZ, an association of LGBT people in Zimbabwe.
“We were hearing a lot of stories about human rights violations occurring, not only in health settings but elsewhere. We realised that having something in place to capture those violations would be useful in order to improve the lives of individuals, but also as a way to engage policy makers.’’
“Previously, parliamentarians said we were trying to promote homosexuality and same sex marriage and dismissed the fact that we’re trying to protect people from human rights violations. The Government was always saying ‘where is the evidence, that these communities exist and people’s rights are being violated? If you can’t present evidence to us then it becomes difficult’.”
GALZ began implementing REAct, (Rights, Evidence, Action), a system for monitoring and responding to violations that impact on people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and their ability to access HIV services. It began by documenting cases in cities such as Harare and Bulawayo, but soon spread its net wider and now documents cases from most parts of Zimbabwe.
Bringing in REAct helped us to proactively go out to more MSM and LGBT communities and raise awareness with people about what their rights are. We have ‘Reactors’ [documenters] from within communities and we also work with people who are well known in a certain community, who are often the first port of call when an incident happens.
“Once we had begun, we started to hear of more and more cases and the evidence, which we think had previously been underreported, began to build.”
For consistency, each Reactor works with the same set of questions. Basic details such as someone’s name and location are recorded, along with details about the incident in question, such as type of violation, what happened, where and when, including any known details about the perpetrators. Most of the common violations relate to the right to health, dignity, privacy and assembly.
“We also explain why we are asking for the information and seek consent about whether they would be willing to make what has happened public,” says Samuel. “There are times when people may prefer to use a pseudonym. This can be a challenge, especially if it’s a case that needs legal recourse. But if it goes to court the media might pick it up and people worry about being outed and becoming a public spectacle.”
“Once we’ve gathered the evidence what happens next depends on guidance from the individual concerned. We will sit together as a team and look at the things we could do to mitigate the issue.”
GALZ has reached out to at least 6,386 MSM with SRH and HIV services through the drop-in centres, which include trainings on substance abuse, human rights literacy, referrals to SRH and HIV services, PrEP and information on health and risk reduction as recorded in its database. A group of 250 women who have sex with women participated in wellness session spaces, while 40 transgender women and 20 transgender men accessed services and were provided safe spaces for engagement. “There is still under-reporting of cases and GALZ continues to encourage community [members] to report violations and seek help when needed”, says Samuel.
Changing lives, changing attitudes
Samuel comments that cases of extortion and blackmail are common, and in these instances GALZ may engage a lawyer to write to the alleged perpetrator or report the incident to the police. Sometimes, people are disowned so GALZ may arrange individual or family counselling. In other cases, a person’s safety may be at risk and GALZ will arrange for them to move somewhere safer. But a large part of the programme also relates to changing the attitudes.
“Once we’ve gathered the evidence we will often use it to educate people who have perpetrated the violations about the rights that have been impeded,” says Samuel. “A lot of the time, incidents happen out of ignorance.”
Samuel recounts one case when a video of police officers taunting a transwoman went viral on social media. GALZ identified the officers involved and talked to them, explaining that what they had done was a violation of dignity and privacy and was unacceptable under the law. “A lot of them apologised,” says Samuel, “they were saying things like ‘this is new to us, we didn’t understand’.”
In a similar way, the evidence has also been used to provide advice and better training for health care workers.
“We have had cases where someone has gone to seek services and health care workers have called out to each other ‘look here is an MSM’ and their confidentiality is completely gone. We will go to that clinic and work with all the health care workers there about the importance of privacy and confidentiality and the kind of language to use when dealing with people who are LGBT.”
Pursuing a new policy environment
As well as working with individual health centres and police stations, GALZ is also using the evidence to affect change on a larger scale.
By targeting health policy makers with the evidence we have gathered, we are hoping they will agree to change the health curriculum by developing the Key populations training manual, minimum service package and Job aides meant to improve LGBT service delivery and the competence of healthcare workers to adequately care for the community.
“We are doing this by conducting engagement sessions with policy makers, taking MSM or other people from the LGBT communities with us to speak to them and present their stories, along with the evidence of rights violations in health settings that we have collected.” GALZ has held two sensitisations and two trainings with parliamentarians thus far.
Although progress is slow, Samuel is noticing a shift in attitudes. “Looking at the general human rights context it is still an area of tension,” he says. “But we are seeing more parliamentarians willing to have an open dialogue with us. There are around 29 parliamentarians who we communicate regularly with now. They are listening. The parliamentarians within the portfolio community on Health and HIV acknowledged receiving funds under the Global Fund for MSM and highlighted the need to make sure no one is left behind. They are committed to hear what the realities are for MSM and other LGBT and how they can be protected within the healthcare service delivery and communities.
“We have recently been given permission to open some MSM drop-in centres; the evidence collection has absolutely influenced this. But, until laws that criminalise same sex activity are addressed, MSM will still ask: ‘How can I feel safe to go there and disclose that I have an STI? How can I feel that I have a right to seek services freely without fear of being arrested, discriminated or stigmatised in any government institution?’ That’s why we need to continuously address issues of policy.”
Samuel has already witnessed a couple of policy shifts that GALZ’s evidence-informed advocacy has helped bring about. For instance, Zimbabwe’s PrEP strategy includes MSM, and its national AIDS strategy includes a reference to MSM in the context of a Global Fund grant. For example, the grant is used to run five drop-in centres and support staff.
For Samuel, who came out as gay in the mid-1990s, the strides that have been made have huge personal as well as political significance.
I used to be a teacher but I would read about how gay people from all over the world were fighting for their rights and were making progress, even if it was taking years. I decided I wanted to use my skills to educate people from LGBT communities in Zimbabwe to understand and claim their rights. And this is what we will do, no matter how long it takes.
Samuel Matsikure is an LGBT and minorities human rights activist and Programmes Manager at GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe). He is a 2016 Human Rights Advocates Programme Alumni with Columbia University. Samuel recently wrote an article reflecting on self-narratives and documentation in human rights discourse in Africa which is part of the Human Rights Advocates Programme 30th Anniversary Report of Columbia University.