Example 2: Lesbian rights and women’s rights in Namibia
Project Type: Advocacy
Sister Namibia is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) committed to gender and racial equality.
The elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the protection of gender equality, and the promotion of women’s health must include lesbian as well as heterosexual women. Yet it can be challenging to include lesbians in the women’s movement, particularly when they are politically useful targets for politicians claiming to protect “national values.”
In the Southern African country of Namibia, a network of women’s organizations led by the NGO Sister Namibia included lesbian rights in a national Manifesto on women’s rights. Many political attacks followed, but the network continued to advocate for lesbian rights as part of women’s rights. Sister Namibia undertook a series of actions to include lesbian rights in their advocacy. Specifically, they:
• Included references to lesbian rights in a 90-page Manifesto on women’s rights, following a broad national consultation beginning in 1999.
• Challenged numerous attacks by the dominant political party in Namibia, the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), that lesbians and homosexuals are selfish, individualistic, and anti-Namibian.
• Continued to advance the rights of lesbians by, inter alia, creating a lesbian working group to work with Black women in townships, beginning a continent-wide Coalition of African Lesbians and exploring how the Women’s Protocol to the ACHPR can be used to advance lesbian rights.
Results & Lessons Learned
• The government attacks created more support for lesbian rights and increasing solidarity among women’s rights and lesbian rights advocates. At workshops in rural areas, participants found new and creative arguments to defend the Manifesto and the rights of lesbians. But advocacy for lesbian rights has not attracted the same attention in Africa as advocacy against sodomy laws and for the rights of gay men.
• Lesbians become politically useful targets when governments—including some feminist-identified government officials who are anti-lesbian—wanted a target to blame while they were claiming to protect “African values.”
• A founding member of Sister Namibia became a member of Parliament. But, the presidential and parliamentary elections held in November 2009 resulted in the re-election of President Hifkepunye Pohamba and the continued rule of SWAPO. Violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity continues.
• The constitution and laws of Namibia protect freedom of association, and according to the U.S. Department of State’s Annual Human Rights Report (2010), “the government generally respected this right in practice.” The report goes on to find that, unlike the prior year, “[a] number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases.”
• Homophobia in Namibia is based, in part, on a fear of ethnic extinction. For instance, in a 2003 statement, President Nujoma declared that: “Homosexuality is against nature and our culture . . . . In Namibia we have a small population; we need to multiply.” Political leaders in Namibia also bread fear of homosexual conversion. Also, they described homosexuality as European and distinctively not African.
• Collaboration between LGBT and feminist activists is almost unique to Namibia. Feminist groups in other African countries often do not collaborate with LGBT groups because feminists groups fear being discredited as un-African by nationalist leaders.
• Sister Namibia has, at times, struggled to find funding to support its continued operation. Obtaining domestic funding was difficult, given scarce resources and a SWAPO-led government that opposed LGBT rights. Sister Namibia, therefore, received a large share of its funding from Northern donors; but by April 2006, expectations that Sister Namibia would eventually be self-sustaining, combined with shifting priorities, led to reduced funding from Northern sources.