A Conversation with Cameroonian Activist Josephine Mandeng

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During the week of Dec. 7, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission hosted a delegation of 50 LGBTI activists from across the world to share their deepest concerns about the rights of LGBTI people with representatives from member states and agencies at the United Nations. Jessica Stern, IGLHRC’s executive director, sat down with Mandeng, 28, a representative of Alternatives Cameroon, for a conversation about the life experiences of lesbians and the movement for LGBT rights in Cameroon. The Q and A was translated from French.

Joesephine MandengJosephine Mandeng at the United Nations in December 2014. Photo by Gaelle Tjat.

Q: First, what is the significance of this week of advocacy for you? A: Once again, I see that we don’t fight this alone, that we’re all in the same fight. I saw that there have been advances in other countries, and that gives me hope. I am happy and grateful to have met so many governments at the U.N. Q: Tell me about the situation for lesbians in Cameroon? It’s men who have the power. And men organize quickly. And the “gays” are men. Lesbians are just like women in general – they don’t get leadership positions, they don’t organize quickly, but they exist. I am the first who showed myself. But there are lots of people like me. The men are arrested quite often. It’s true. Now, the arrests are starting with the lesbians, as well. In 2013 and 2014, at least 6-10 lesbians I know of were arrested and put in prison. (Editor’s Note: The arrests referred to here have not been individually documented by IGLHRC.) There are lots of lesbians who are rejected by their families, forced into marriage, forced to have children, and they can’t work, especially those who dress like men. For instance, if I didn’t have the job that I have now, I would be at home. I am an accountant. I would apply at the banks and at different companies, but I would never be hired because of how I dress. There are lots of lesbians who are in my situation. Q: How many lesbians do you know personally? A: Probably one thousand! I made a lesbian soccer team! We would play every Sunday. And that’s also where we have our discussions on health. Q. How many of the lesbians that you know are unemployed? A: A lot! I’ve tried to make categories of lesbians. Those who conform (in appearance) may have jobs. Some do nothing. Those are probably the majority. It’s not that they’re not educated --- they have diplomas. Q: Why are the numbers of unemployed lesbians so high? A: Most women in general in Cameroon don’t have work because they’re not educated. For lesbians, that’s not the reason. It’s because they don’t conform. And for the lesbians who aren’t educated, it’s for both reasons -- they’re gender non-conforming and they’re uneducated. Q: Can you tell me about levels of violence experienced by lesbians? A: There is physical, psychological and social. Psychological: I talk about the lesbians who do not conform who are masculine (in appearance). They are the most visible. Every day, they’re insulted and thrown out of bars just because of how they look. I was asked to leave a bar and not return just because I’m a lesbian. Physical: We are beaten, hit, etc. That’s just by men who are around. There also are the police who arrest them. This happens to all lesbians --- not just the butch ones. If two women are walking together, they’ll both be subjected to verbal assaults, beatings, and even arrested. Socially: I’m talking about the family. All of the violence that comes from the family, even rapes authorized by the family, forced marriage, forced childbirth, it’s all a kind of violence. Q: Do the lesbians you know ever report violence to the police or to medical professionals? Α: When these things happen, they come to our organization because our organization has become an on-the-ground medical center. They come to us. [They] never go to the police. If you go to the police and say: “This person beat me or raped me,” the police come and explain it’s because she’s a lesbian and they arrest you instead. Q: In 2010, IGLHRC worked with your organization and others on a report documenting the human rights situation for LGBT in Cameroon. Have things changed since then? A: From 2010 to today, lots of things have been done! In 2010, we were looking for lesbians who had been victimized, but they were too afraid to speak. But now they come. Before, I was the only lesbian working at Alternatives Cameroon. Today, there are 7 lesbians working at Alternatives Cameroon, and the whole staff is 30. Q: What programs do you offer to lesbians? Α: Soccer, education, gynecological information, HIV testing.