Friday, December 22, 2006

On Transgender Human Rights Issues in Africa

From Fahamu (Oxford)
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December 7, 2006
Posted to the web December 7, 2006

by Juliet Victor Mukasa

In most African states, homosexuality is illegal. Juliet Victor Mukasa writes that in Africa, transgender people are punished and ostracised for being who they are. "While still with my parents, I was always beaten by my father for "behaving" like a boy. In school, the same story. While peeing one day my neighbour's daughter found me peeing while squatting and she screamed like she had seen a monster."

As a transgender person who is attracted physically and emotionally to other women, issues that African women and trangenders face are of particular concern to me. The one thing that all transgender people have in common is that we do not fit into traditional gender categories.

We're taught that that a human being must behave, present themselves, dress and so on in only two ways...male or female. There are rules that govern genders, unfortunately. Such gender rules include:

-How a man should dress in order to appear masculine;

-What types of jobs are fitting for a woman

-That a woman must only be in a relationship with another man, not with a woman

These rules to govern our behaviour are socially constructed, meaning that they are not "natural". They are rules made up by people, sometimes with horrible punishments for not following them.

In Africa, transgender people are seriously punished for being who they are. While still with my parents, I was always beaten by my father for "behaving" like a boy. In school, the same story. While peeing one day my neighbour's daughter found me peeing while squatting and she screamed like she had seen a monster. I became the laughing stock of the village and I expelled myself because of the humiliation. I could speak the whole day about the discomforts I have suffered in life more because I am a transgender person.

All trans-people that I have interacted with mention such, or even worse, moments in their lives. It can be a very deep violation of our being to be forced to perform our gender differently to who we feel it for ourselves.

Some people, like myself, are born with a sense of ourselves as male in some ways, even though we are biologically female.

As a transgender person, it is constantly demanded of me to explain and justify why I do not fit into other people's ideas of what a woman or a man should be.

As a Human Rights defender, I am working to protect a space for people to exist freely without facing harassment, threats, or violence for not fitting into traditional gender categories.

I can give specific examples of human rights abuses and violations of transgender people in Africa:

- Raped to prove that you are really a woman

- At school and public assembly - humiliation and beatings

- Thrown out of the family home

- Thrown out of subsequent homes by landlords

- Losing jobs because of feeling violated wearing a skirt

- Psychological Effects of Abuse: Depression, Anger, Drinking, Suicide

- Holding a full bladder for 12-18 hours daily

- Being undressed and humiliated

- Being abused by government when trying to get a passport

- In church - I was once stripped naked before a multitude of people. The pastor 'saw' the spirit of a young man inside me and they burnt my clothes and shoes in order to kill the male spirit.

- By Police: humiliation, mocking, mistreatment

However, transgender people have also been successful in overcoming these abuses.

In Uganda there is tremendous energy and anger on the part of activists. Many LGBTs are ready to rise up. For example, some transgender men are dressing up in drag and declaring that they have had enough.

Another victory is the establishment of the first specifically Transgender organization on the continent: Gender DynamiX, located in Cape Town, South Africa.

We are now claiming language and claiming spaces. Sometimes it is even difficult for us to understand ourselves because the world has been constructed to make us completely invisible. But now we are finding words to use for ourselves such as He She Che.

As an illustration of why we need your support, I would like to highlight the work of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). SMUG is an organization made up of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Human Rights Defenders. Many of us in leadership in this organization are women and several of us are transgender. We face many challenges such as in Uganda, on a weekly basis, gay men are arrested and face detention if they do not pay a bribe to be released. This has become a business from which the police benefit. The basic Human Rights of LGBT people are completely disregarded in this process as the police abuse our rights.

Many of us do not receive protection from the police when we face violations of our rights by the surrounding community. One of SMUG's primary emphases in our workplan for this year is sensitising the police and creating a better working relationship with them.

By having the support, awareness, and protection of international Human Rights bodies, we will be much more effective in this endeavour. Through our work, we aim to help people realise the ways in which we are all connected, whether straight or LGBT, the societal rules governing what a woman has to be like and what a man has to be like hurt us all.

However, we still have many needs. We are an invisible population when it comes to protection. There is almost NO research to understand transgender people's lives in Africa.We have an undocumented history and are still invisible.

The secrecy and covert nature of our work in Africa also makes us invisible to the larger gender and human rights sector, and to each other. There is almost NO action in this area to protect people who do not fit into traditional gender categories. At the same time we are highly visible and therefore highly vulnerable to discrimination.

Transgender people have the potential to radically challenge discriminatory practices in a way that helps to free all people from sexism. People who cross gender boundaries make transformation of society more possible, and make gender transgressions more acceptable and enable societal gender transformation. We - the transgender community - have the right to tell our stories and have them heard, and to have our lives protected.

Mainstream Human Rights organizations, for the most part, are not accepting or protecting us on any level. As people from all over the world who are concerned about human rights and gender injustice, we need to work together to protect our most vulnerable Human Rights Defenders.


1. Research and understand the complex self-identification of transgender people in Africa.

2. More effectively monitor human rights situations abuses and violations against Transgender People (such as systematic rape, intimidation, forced undressing, and economic exclusion).

3. Educate the UN bodies and its partners about transgender concerns.

4. Provide training, support, and protection to transgender Human Rights Defenders and allies.

5. Put pressure on local governments, donors, economic powers and human rights institutions toprovide protection for those who do not fit into traditional gender categories and to recognize the way in which transgender people add to the freedom of expression and quality of life of all people.

• This paper was presented at the World International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) PANEL AT 2ND UNCHR SESSION. Juliet Victor Mukasa is the Chairperson of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Mukasa is also in the ILGA Board of Representatives

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