Fostering Collaboration Globally on LGBTI Rights

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission hosted African LGBTI activists Chesterfield Samba of Zimbabwe and Dorothy Aken’ova of Nigeria on Wednesday, Oct. 29 for a conversation aimed at increasing collaboration between the continent’s activists and advocates around the world.

Samba, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), has been fighting for LGBTI rights since 1992. Aken’ova, an advocate for sexual minorities and women’s rights, is founder and executive director of INCRESE, working to protect human rights and end discriminatory laws. Aken’ova is a member of IGLHRC’s Africa Program Advisory Committee.

Marianne Møllmann, IGLHRC Program Director, moderated the event in IGLHRC’s New York offices, and began the conversation by asking, “What does effective international collaboration look like?” Samba and Aken’ova highlighted the importance of ensuring that activists on the ground and the larger international LGBTI community are working together toward common goals. This is important, they said, to avoid any actions by activists overseas that could undermine efforts to achieve progress at home.

Activists Dorothy Aken’ova of Nigeria and Chesterfield Samba of Zimbabwe in conversation.

Aken'ova said recent gains at the United Nations, specifically the adoption by the U.N. Human Rights Council of a resolution specific to sexual orientation and gender identity, shows the “very strong and very real” partnerships between local activists and international organizations that lead to progress. These formidable gains, however, are not without drawbacks as Aken'ova noted, “the backlash is immense.” Oftentimes, when linkages between advocate communities fail, intervention by the Global North can worsen the situation for those on the ground. When asked about how and when allies in the U.S. should respond to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, Samba responded, “I think that’s where our partner, IGLHRC, comes in. They play that bridge between the North and us and advise the international community on what actions to take because they are more aware of what’s happening on the ground.”

Although activists in Zimbabwe and Nigeria face similar challenges, both Samba and Aken’ova rejected the notion of a uniform solution to LGBTI persecution on the African continent. The implementation of Sharia law in Nigeria, for example, has created a considerably more hostile environment for LGBTI people, forcing activists like Aken’ova to adapt strategies to confront restrictive tenets of Islamic law as they impact the LGBTI community. In discussing the experiences of LGBTI people in Zimbabwe, whose government is hostile to the community, Samba reminded the audience that, “We cannot apply a straightjacket approach to interventions in Africa.” Throughout the conversation it became clear that contextualization is a key component of effective activism to combat stigma and discrimination in Africa, as political systems, religious influences, media access, and attitudes towards LGBTI people vary tremendously across the continent.

One audience member raised the question of the responsibility of the private sector, and noted that businesses have the potential to reduce or eliminate oppressive responses to LGBTI people by placing pressure on foreign governments to enforce policies of non-discrimination. Echoing these sentiments, Aken’ova suggested that corporations with operations in Africa should make their policies clear and become directly invested in the lives of those in need of protection. One way, she said, was through education. “I think that [private organizations] can pull resources together and start to provide scholarships for LGBTI students within the country…It will also provide us with professionals. We want doctors and lawyers who are LGBT because other ones will not do the work.” Samba encouraged those in the room to demand that these private companies who claim to embrace equality put these policies into practice internationally and use their leverage to make real change on the ground.

Aken’ova ended the event with a powerful appeal to invest in young leadership. 

As one of a handful of LGBTI activists in Nigeria, Aken’ova stressed the importance of “sustainable activism” that will continue to push for change. Reinforcing her message of translating this dialogue into action Aken’ova proclaimed, “Don’t call Dorothy all the time to come here. Please call younger women to also come. It’s true the first time they come, you will invest more than you will gain, but over time the gains will be much more.”

In countries round the world, discrimination toward LGBT individuals is hardwired into the law. In some 76 countries individuals can face criminal sanctions for private consensual sexual relations with another adult of the same sex. Violence is widespread and even in countries that don’t specifically criminalize same-sex relations, discrimination is endemic, punishing people perceived as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and undermining their access to education, jobs, health care, even housing.

This conversation was part of an occasional series by IGLHRC bringing together a range of perspectives from LGBTI activists around the globe. To be informed about future events, subscribe to our email list.