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Behind the Mask’s Nigeria correspondent, Akoro Joseph Sewedo, speaks to Dorothy Aken'Ova about her work and activism.

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20th September 2011 13:01

Alessia Valenza

Nigerian feministis Dorothy Aken’Ova is Executive Director of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights. She also champions LGBTI rights.

In an interview last week, Aken’Ova spoke to Behind the Mask’s Nigeria correspondent Joseph Sewodo about her work and activism. Below are excerpts of the interview:

Can you give a background of how and when you got into LGBT rights advocacy?

It was in 1994 and 1995 soon after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW). At that time women’s rights activists and feminists had done all the lobbying they could to get sexual orientation into the outcome documents but failed. It was then that I understood that dehumanizing LGBTI persons and robbing them of their human rights was a deliberate act by the state and religious conservatives.

I was challenged to action to get policy makers to understand that there is no justification for discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

I was challenged by the fact that most African delegates at UN meetings were quick to deny that LGBTs were as African as Africa. I did not understand how those I knew were same sex loving people or trans, born and bred in Nigeria became UnAfrican.

I knew that it was unfair and hypocritical of those leaders to deny the Africanity in homosexuality. That they were simply using moral sentiments and spiritual blackmail to mobilize hatred against homosexuals and transgender persons and diverting attention from the real issues such as corruption in government (misappropriation of funds, flagrant abuse of offices), deteriorating education, lack of quality health care services and other social amenities that would provide quality life styles for people.

The ICPD and FWCW advocacy efforts demonstrated that LGBTs suffer human rights violations. They lobbied for the recognition and protection of the human rights of LGBTs. The five year review of the implementation of the ICPD programme of Action (POA) and the FWCW platform for action (PFA) strengthened my resolve to advocate for the human rights of sexual minorities. The review showed that implementation of the POA and the PFA marginalized the LGBTs.

I knew that my advocacy had to be at all levels, national and international, as well as awareness raising and capacity building for groups and communities towards a change in behaviour towards sexual minorities. This has been my work ever since.

Please share some of your experiences doing this advocacy in Nigeria.

It has been difficult and slow. Initially, I was a lone voice in the desert. Only few feminists saw the need to team up with me to protect the rights of sexual minorities. I thought that women’s NGOs would buy into the project considering the fact that many women’s rights are violated on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

It took a little time before a few of them came round to support the advocacy for LGBTIs. We still do not have as many mainstream human rights NGOs supporting advocacy work for LGBT rights.

Recently, we held an extensive round table with a local chapter of the Human Rights Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) seeking collaboration for advocacy for LGBTI rights, but only a few of the members accepted the partnership.

We therefore do not have the NBA or its human rights committee working along with us. I did not for once think that the human rights committee would turn down an invitation to protect the rights of people who are born equal in rights and dignity as everyone else. Some members made derogatory and even hateful remarks about LGBTs.

We also worked recently with reporters and news editors. It took a great effort to get the reporters to see the need to protect the rights of LGBTIs. This [sort of thing], in addition to personal attacks which happen once in a while, have made the work more challenging.

Your organization is based in Northern Nigeria where Sharia law is implemented. Can you please tell us how you have been able to work in such a dangerous place?

[Let me tell you] precisely why INCRESE is located in the Sharia governed state. INCRESE was founded around the time Sharia law was expanded in northern Nigeria. It was crucial to be there to assess the interpretation and monitor the application of the newly expanded law and procedures especially as regards sexuality related components of the law.

INCRESE works on sexual rights broadly, and not limited to LGBTI rights but also women’s rights and the rights of the girl child. This gave credibility to our work and provided us with community rootedness.

We have had backlash in the past. Our project advisory committee has played a big role in protecting us and the work we do. We are also strategic in the work we do, taking a lot of safety measures to ensure that we do not draw unnecessary attention to ourselves.

For instance [we are all about] projecting the institution instead of individuals. The name of the organization and the inclusion of the international Board Members also help as the policy makers do not want to draw international attention to themselves.

INCRESE was a convener of the consortium that advocated against the Bill aimed to prohibit same sex marriage in Nigeria in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Please can you describe the role you played and how the group worked?

The role INCRESE played was to mobilize a group of activists into a coalition. This coalition facilitated the interpretation of the Bill and its implication on the human rights of Nigerians on perceived or actual sexual orientation. [We also observed] the adverse impact of the bill on democracy in Nigeria and our international relations.

We also mobilized funds for the work that was required to fight the Bill, collected signatures and encouraged partners in EU countries and USA to put pressure on their foreign mission to dissuade the Nigerian government to withdraw the Bill.

INCRESE served as a link between the LGBTI community in Nigeria and the international community ensuring strategies and actions taken outside Nigeria did not put the community at more risk.

The group worked as a coalition. There were strategic meetings at which decisions were made regarding the bills and the intervention strategies we employed. We resolved as a group to do everything to minimize harm in the process. We also discussed how to manage the relationship with the media to keep things under control.

The coalition monitored the bill after the public hearing, and kept close contact with the Committee of the House of Assembly that was set up to host the a public hearing and make recommendations to the house.

We also knew when the minority group emerged. It was them who gave the minority report that was instrumental to the death of the bill. The minority group of the committee did not see reason for passing the bill. They drew their strength from the coalition. They made it clear that unless there was a visible group of Nigerians objecting to the bill, their arguments would not be strong. The Coalition did.

What is your opinion about integrating LGBT rights advocacy into broader human rights advocacy? Is it the way to go?

Certainly. It is a good way to go, to mainstream our advocacy with other rights movements so that we have a broad community of groups advocating for the same issues. This will lend credibility to our work, produce a synergy that will strengthen our efforts and provide an opportunity for us to leverage on other funding sources. It should produce positive results in a shorter frame of time.

Do you have any experience of where this integration had occurred?

Yes. When I started advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2003, we were a group of LGBT activists advocating to include sexual orientation language in the resolutions tendered to the commission. We could lobby delegates from friendly states, present statements to the commission when it was sitting on the rights of LGBT persons. We would seek audience with special rapporteurs in relevant fields and discuss the experiences of LGBTI persons in various countries regarding human rights violations and the impunity with which it is perpetrated.

The results trickled in until more feminists got involved and expanded the scope of advocacy to include other rights issues, women’s rights, rights of adolescents, rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. This was the strategy used at the UN in New York for the five and 10 years review of ICPD and FWCW, the various UNGASS, CPD, SCW, etc.

More groups took interest in participating in lobbying there and the results are obvious. More member states took interest in the LGBTI issues because these were featuring repeatedly. These kinds of strategies demonstrate the intersectionalities, and indivisibility of rights. Now the difference is clear. We have a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Do you have any other information you like to share about LGBT rights advocacy in Africa or Nigeria?

Change does occur but with a lot of commitment. It is disheartening to see us lose young activists to migration to Europe. To the point that it has become difficult for us to tell who is using advocacy as a platform for seeking asylum or obtaining visas to abscond. We need those who have the burden to make Nigeria a country without discrimination including based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to come out and join us in our advocacy. LGBTI persons also need to be willing to team up with other groups to advocate for rights in Nigeria, it makes the journey shorter.