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ILGA Panel at the 61rst UNCHR

in NIGERIA, 11/05/2005

It is difficult to be different as a woman

I would like to share with you the context from which I come and how lesbian and bisexual women are perceived within that context.

Just like in most places around the world Nigeria is a patriarchal system, male dominated. The dominant value under which people are assessed, judged, formed, modeled is male dominated.

The only sexual agent is a masculine. Even if you are a female, heterosexual, you do not have control over your body. You do not have any say in decisions over matters that may concern you even directly, such as how to manage the menstrual cycle, when to have sex, if at all to have sex, who to have sex with, limits in negotiating relationships, choosing a partner, having children. Those are not controlled by a woman even when she is heterosexual.

There is a perpetuation of low value in assessing who a woman should be, we do not have the same rights if we have any at all, whether or not we are heterosexual, it does not matter.

We have a lot of obligations as women, including controlling men’s sexuality, heterosexuality. The responsibility of misconduct of most men is blamed on women: if a man rapes, if he beats, if he drinks, if a woman has too many children or none at all, it is the woman’s fault.

In this context it is difficult to be different as a woman.

Starting with a heterosexual woman who seeks to be different: if she wants to go to school, she has to convince her family. It is women who mostly drop out from school for various reasons including income generation to support her male siblings and marriage.

Recently, data from diverse national surveys indicate that school enrolments for the girl child has improved. Furthermore, many schools have been opened for girls, but the level and content of education is extremely poor. The school curricula is gender biased and are used to brain wash her into the very model we are challenging. Teachers do not even want to teach in these schools because they are not well paid.

There are still nutritional taboos for women in the country. For example, in some communities in the north of Nigeria, women are forbidden to eat chicken.

Dress codes debates have sprung out all over the country ranging from religious institutions to institutions of learning. Most dressings have been tabooed: if a young woman wore a jeans trousers and a T-shirt, she could be stoned in the street by young boys, and no passers by or adults around would scold them for doing so. In fact, in my home state, the state radio announced that the state was concerned about the decadent dressing of young women nowadays. The announcements warned that women should desist from such dressing otherwise, if caught, the dressing will be corrected on the spot. There was no definition by these announcements what indecent dressing was, or what the alternative decent dressing should be. This was left to the discretion of young boys and men to decide on the spot – upon sighting a girl.

In my context, difference is criminalized and punished. It is not celebrated, even when it is perceived to be heterosexual.

If we go beyond the border of heterosexuality it is a major problem. In the past when we had the civil law it was ok to hide in the closet. But with the expansion of the Sharia law, it has become increasingly difficult to be perceived to have affection for another woman outside platonic relationship. If there is a suspicion that a woman is having a sexual relationship with another woman, she would be arrested and if found guilty, she would be sentenced to death by the State. They would put the women in a situation where she has to confess. Then it is judged as an offence. It is difficult for women to celebrate difference of sexual orientation.

Some have claimed that lesbians do not exist in Nigeria. But they exist. Of these women have chosen to be different, not minding the risk they are taking. Even if often not openly, they sometimes come together once in a while to share and support each other.

Since the colonialists, our local languages have continued to be censored. It is easier to claim that lesbianism is an imported behavior because most people have never heard the words in their local languages. In a survey I carried out, it was only the much older persons who still remembered my going. It is difficult to ally to the times, to the concept of sexual orientation, as some words have been taken off regular usage in our language to the point that people think that they do not exist.

In most instances, girls who identify as girls who have sexual relationship with other women, are obliged to have a male partner in order to survive. In fact, the women fear for their lives and do not want to be discovered, so in most instances, they could have a heterosexual relationship along side their preferred life style. Everything is done to make sure that women do not celebrate their diversity. There are records of anecdotes that indicate that in the past, girls have been ostracized from their families, expelled from schools, excommunicated from religious communities, sometimes beaten up and or raped by men who live in their environment. They claim that the women are encroaching on “their territory”. To be safe in most countries, people go into the closet. In Nigeria, in many communities, there are no safe places for closets.

In the past, women have been taken to the police when perceived to have same sex relationships. There are not successfully judged cases, we do not have these cases documented. The law enforcement agents extort money from them, sometimes rape them and send them away.

We must also appreciate the fact that when we talk about violence against lesbians and bisexual women we are not talking about a homogenous group. Lesbians and bi-sexual women are not the same because of the context in which they live. They come from different cultural background and do not have the same opportunities.

They are discriminated against by the outside world but also discriminated within and among themselves. Lesbian bisexual women’s groups need to pause and think of practices, processes that constitute discriminatory practices against members of the group.

There is an on-going initiative to build / create a lesbian coalition in Africa. Recently, I sent two young women to represent the network of women who have same sex relationships, and they were almost sent back to Nigeria on question of their identities but most especially mine too. There are big differences in Africa. In some places, for instance in South Africa, there are laws that allow same sex marriages, while in other places women could get stoned to death for engaging in sexual intercourse with each other. With these kinds of differences, there is need to create room for diversity even among the lesbian bisexual women’s group so that queer women are treated with equal rejection, marginalisation and discrimination they suffer from the hetero-normative world.

My final word is “let us celebrate difference”.

Dorothy Aken'ova
Executive Director for International centre for reproductive health and sexual rights
From Increase Nigeria
Feminist, activist, sexual health and rights advocate
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