What is the Southern African Development Community and Why is it Important to Include LGBTIQ Issues in the 36th SADC Summit?

The Southern African Development Community is an inter-governmental organization with 15 southern African member states. Its goal is to further socio-economic cooperation and integration as well as political and security cooperation among its members.

Every year, the heads of states of the member organizations meet at the SADC summit. From August 30-31st, the 36th SADC Summit is held in Mbabane, Swaziland. The 15 member states will all be represented, including: Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

This summit focuses on various social issues in the Southern African region such as economic growth, good governance, and peace and security. SADC Heads of State and Government meet annually at this conference with the purpose of deliberating on how to improve the living standards of the peoples of the 15 participating nations.

In the days before the Heads of State and Government meetings, civil society organizations convene at the Civil Society Forum, a platform to dialogue and reflect on issues affecting the SADC region. The Civil Society Forum deliberates and formulates a position on behalf of civil society to be presented to the Heads of State at the main summit.

Despite the major challenges facing LGBTIQ Southern African citizens in accessing basic rights and living free of violence and intimidation, their voices are largely silent in these processes. In many of the SADC countries, LGBTIQ individuals face sodomy laws, homophobia and transphobia, social exclusion, and violence - including state sponsored violence. Furthermore, mainstream media tends to be unsupportive, biased and sometimes destructive in their portrayal of LGBTIQ people, which contributes to the negative attitudes toward and treatment of LGBTIQ people that exist in several Southern African countries.

Importantly, the SADC is where Southern African leaders make development decisions that affect all the citizens of the region, and thus it is critical that this summit is utilized to prompt discussion on positive change for the LGBTIQ communities.

OutRight has been working closely with civil society organizations on engaging SADC on LGBTIQ issues and for the first time, in 2015 a session on minority groups – including LGBTIQ – was included in the Civil Society Forum which took place in Botswana. The inclusion of a session on minority groups was in and of itself an achievement. In past years, LGBTI rights and voices have been totally absent at SADC meetings.

The concept note which came out of the Forum included the rights of the LGBTIQ community as one of its core issues to discuss in the plenary session and stipulated the need to “develop a common and rights-based approach towards the LGBTIQ community.” However, LGBTIQ rights were not included in the final, signed joint civil society statement and were therefore not discussed at the SADC. Although the inclusion of LGBTIQ issues in the concept note was blocked by trade union and church representatives, it is an important milestone and achievement.

It is vital for states in the region to recognize and ensure that all citizens are entitled to equal rights, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. SADC member states are obliged to comply with the regional, continental and global legal instruments they have signed on to - such as United Nations Resolutions 17/19 and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Resolution 275 among others, which obligate states to ensure equality, protection, and non-discrimination for all citizens.

As we approach the 36th SADC Summit in Swaziland, there is a great need to build on last year’s momentum to foster action and commitment, and ensure that development and human rights issues impacting the South African LGBTIQ community are heard.

OutRight will be present at the Summit to help drive this conversation and work with civil society allies to raise LGBTIQ issues. Currently, not even all of civil society can be counted on to recognize the importance of including LGBTIQ people. The long-term goal is to build a broader coalition and get LGBTIQ issues incorporated into the SADC development agenda.

For more information on last year’s Summit and a broad overview of LGBTIQ rights in the region, check out, “Africa: LGBTI Rights and the Power of the People” a blog by Shehnilla Mohamed, our Regional Program Coordinator for Africa, and watch out for a report back from the Summit in the coming weeks!