by Judy Bokao
Working for trans diverse rights in East Africa
Africa is one of the most difficult places to live when you are queer. Most African countries consider being LGBTQ+ a crime and have harsh legal punishments in place. It is therefore extremely hard to operate NGOs that support LGBTQ+ rights in Africa. There have been numerous cases of LGBTQ+ activists in Africa being killed and some have had to flee their home countries because of violent homophobic threats. Luckily, transgender people in the East African community have found an ally in East Africa Trans Health & Advocacy Network (EATHAN), an NGO formed to organize and advocate for the improvement of transgender health, recognition of gender and protection of their human rights. I interviewed Barbra Wangare, Executive Director of EATHAN.
What inspired the formation of EATHAN?
The East Africa Trans Health & Advocacy Network is a collective of 25 trans diverse activists and organizations. EATHAN was conceived in June 2015 during the 5th Changing Faces, Changing Spaces Conference [a biennial event sponsored by UHAI EASHRI]. The new network was officially formed in July 2016, to fill a need for regional trans diverse health and human rights advocacy work in East Africa, to provide an East African voice for the trans diverse movement in the region and most importantly to provide necessary support to East African trans diverse individuals and organizations in terms of capacity building, income generating solutions, as well as HIV/AIDS and STI access and research.
One of EATHAN’s objectives is to advocate for trans diverse rights and create awareness. What have been the challenges you have faced in trying to reach this objective?
Our biggest challenge is lack of funding. Without adequate and sustainable funding, we are not able to achieve our objectives. We have done a lot to spread the funding we have towards achieving some of our objectives.
Another challenge is that majority of trans diverse activists and groups in East Africa do not have the necessary capacity to conduct their work and/or to effectively fundraise for their work. This slows down progress and continues to make it difficult for trans diverse people to exist. We are also seeing a shift towards anti-trans work by anti-trans movements globally who influence decision makers in our region into proposing and/or implementing laws and/or policies that criminalize trans diverse people and make our existence even more difficult.
Which projects is EATHAN currently working on?
We are currently working on sensitizing the public on trans diverse rights and livelihoods through different forms of media engagement as well as advocacy work at relevant spaces such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations. We also continue to provide necessary support to our members in their work through capacity strengthening programs.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered when doing your research?
It is very difficult to conduct research on a population that is criminalized and hidden in this region. We have had to use creative ways to conduct research with the view of ensuring the safety of respondents and the organizations we work with. Currently, with the pandemic in full swing, we are now working online — and unfortunately a majority of trans diverse persons do not have access to a smartphone, tablet or computer, or do not have internet connection.
The transgender community is one of the most overlooked minorities in East Africa. What are the top issues that the transgender community face there?
The biggest challenges that trans diverse people in East Africa face include societal violence, stigma, ostracization and discrimination. This happens everywhere. The majority of trans diverse people are rejected by their families and are forced to look for ways to survive devoid of familial support. This is especially so for trans women & trans feminine people. Our recent research study found that more than half of trans women in East Africa engage in sex work. This is a result of the lack of jobs, denial of work due to their identity expression or a mismatch between their presentation and their identity documents. We are also seeing continuous backlash from governments in their anti-homosexuality actions, laws, and policies. Trans diverse people are the most visible in the queer community and they are often perceived to be homosexuals which increases their chances of experiencing violence.
How effective has your research and awareness campaign been in combating transphobia in East Africa?
It is difficult to measure any real effect in our work mainly because real tangible effects take a long time — often years. While we are extremely proud of the work we have done so far, there is still a lot that needs to be done towards legal gender recognition and the overall full realization of human rights for trans diverse people in East Africa.
Gaining recognition of one’s gender identity is so difficult in East Africa. It is a long process. Does EATHAN help or advise individuals through the legal process?
We are a regional network. Action such as supporting trans diverse people in name change and/or gender marker change is work that local in-country organizations do. We support our members in their work through providing spaces for them to exchange knowledge and learning so that they can do their work effectively.
How are you able to fund these very essential projects?
As a non-profit institution, we rely on donor funding to conduct our work. The funds go a long way towards providing hormone therapy, a much-needed service to the multitude of trans diverse folk who desperately need it. It is also used in conducting an extensive research that looks at the effects of gender affirming hormone therapy on trans diverse East Africans over the course of a year to 3 years from the beginning of therapy. We have information on how to donate on our website and we update all donors on the progress of the fund and its activities.
About the Author:
Judy Bokao is 20 years old and was born in Ethiopia but relocated to Nairobi two years ago. She is passionate about everyone having equal rights and is also big on conservation and speaking up for our planet. Judy loves reading and photography and is just a free-spirited young lady trying to grow into a woman her mom can be proud of.