Rhoda Awino Odhiambo is a member of the organisation “Minority Women in Action” (MWA).
Minority Women in Action was formed in 2006 with the purpose of advocating for the rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LBTI) women in Kenya by engaging with national and international partners. MWA educates and corrects misconceptions on sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, MWA provides platforms and opportunities for members to build different skills in organizational management, economic empowerment, advocacy on LBTI rights and knowledge in health. In December 2010 at the XXV ILGA World Conference MWA was elected as ILGA Women’s Secretariat. Rhoda defines herself as an activist and a feminist.
Interview by Patricia Curzi
What convinced you and your organisation “Minority Women in Action”, Kenya, to participate in the whole 14th UPR session?
UPR participation is in line with one of our strategic objectives of growing and participating in policy and legal framework both locally and internationally. MWA is currently the women’s secretariat of ILGA and also a member of Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL). The two weeks at the UPR session gave me, and in extension MWA, an opportunity to understand how the UN Human rights system runs and how best we can get involved with the aim of making a difference in advocating for our rights in civil society. Eventually, the idea is that, together with ILGA and other organizations, the knowledge that I got at the United Nations Human Rights Council will be used to assist other LGBT groups understand the UPR process and also give guidance on how to submit their own statements. Once the process is understood, one realizes that you do not need to travel and wait to be at the UN in Geneva to start advocacy work, as most of the advocacy actually takes place in your own country.
If you had to tell to some activists what were the most interesting events around the UPR session related to LGBT issues, what would you tell?
The most interesting events would probably be hearing the different countries defend their human rights situation. It is interesting to note the language used when the recommendations are given, especially on LGBT issues. Also to note would be the countries that do not shy away from making recommendations on the LGBT situations in various countries, because many African countries don’t even seem to touch on the issues when making recommendations.
During the second week of my stay I had the opportunity to work more closely with Patricia Curzi from ILGA’s office and with Belissa Andia Perez, from the Peruvian trans organization Instituto Runa. We shared knowledge, experience and tips on how to best lobby for our issues in our countries and here in Geneva.
It is also interesting to see a transparent process at work that puts governments under pressure to remedy situations that have been questioned and recommendations made.
Your home country, Kenya, will be reviewed at the 21st UPR session in 2015. How will the experience you acquired in Geneva be of use to prepare the UPR of Kenya?
Coming here at this time was a good idea, since I now realize that within the time before Kenya is reviewed a lot can be done. After meeting with the representative of UPR info, Jean-Claude Vignoli, and getting acquainted with their mid-term review programme, I even better understood the importance of follow-up of the recommendations. We would probably be organizing an NGO mid-term review for Kenya initially with other LGBT groups which can then look at which recommendations still need to be implemented by the government with regards to our issues and how we then fit with the larger civil society.
The exposure here has also informed me how we can use the different embassies within my country to articulate our issues as LGBT and encourage them to speak on our behalf at the session. It takes just one recommendation from one state to have your particular concerns put into the UPR process. This is just great and a good start which can lead to policy changes back home.
As a representative of ILGA’s Women Secretariat you were also interested in meeting lesbian and feminist groups in Geneva and in Switzerland. Did you find any similarities with your experience in Kenya and in Africa?
I had the opportunity to meet different people and organizations during my time in Switzerland. I was fortunate to be around to meet Lestime (a lesbian organization) in Geneva at a time when they were celebrating their 10th anniversary. Here I got to meet many interesting people and some really exceptional women working for women in their country.
I also visited the Dialogai offices in Geneva and learnt about the work they do for the LGBT community with special concentration on gay men.
I also went to Zurich to meet members of Queer Amnesty and spent an interesting morning with Hannes and Pascale from the organization, and later on went to Bern to the Amnesty International offices. Amnesty is regarded highly on human rights issues, and for me to be there with the staff was quite a highlight. Overall, I have had an opportunity to meet many special people; and I look forward to meeting them again.
In regards to sharing similar experiences, it was interesting to note that similarities exist in so far as challenges within the use of power in feminist-run organizations are concerns. I met a few feminists and am glad to have discussed these ideas and gotten a few ideas of how power can be used positively. What was different, however, was the level of participation in the feminist movement amongst the younger generation. I guess here in Switzerland the younger generation have not felt the disadvantage of being in an unequal system and, therefore, don’t participate too much in the feminist movement. There are a lot of opportunities for young women to succeed; and the possibilities are endless in this country.
Finally, what will be the most useful experience you will bring back home from the UPR session and your stay in Switzerland?
I think the whole experience on its own is an eye-opener. First , one gets access to delegates from different governments, which would be very hard under any other circumstances; and, as I previously said, it gives you a chance to articulate your issues. It’s also a good place to listen to governments and see how they view themselves in relation to how others view them. This system means that the governments expose their actions, and the recommendations are made. I think it is a humbling experience and something that is needed to keep government answerable to others.
I also got to understand countries that are strong on LGBT issues. The whole place is just a library of information and a good place to meet other NGOs. The UPR system basically holds the governments accountable to their actions.
Another useful experience that I will take with me is never to take the sun for granted. Being in this cold weather has made me appreciate the weather in Kenya more. I will probably never complain that the sun is too hot and is making me sweat. Apparently that’s a good thing from now onwards.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a new Human Rights peer review monitoring tool established by the United Nations in 2006. By the end of the first four-year cycle in 2011 all the 192 States were reviewed.
The second cycle started in 2012. In the next four and a half years it will review 42 States each year. At the end of the second cycle all 193 States (including the newly recognised South Sudan) will be reviewed.
The review consists of five main steps: elaboration of reports; interactive dialogue among member States; adoption of the outcome of recommendations; formal adoption of the report by the state, implementation and follow-up. The various procedures involve States, international and national NGOs, national human rights institutes and other stakeholders.
In 2012 the 14th UPR session reviewed Czech Republic, Argentina, Gabon, Ghana, Ukraine, Guatemala, Benin, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Pakistan, Zambia, Japan, Peru and Sri Lanka
Other interviews of LGBT activists on their experience in the UPR system are available at http://ilga.org/ilga/en/article/nsKSZ961xx
Spanish, French and Portuguese version: click on the language symbol on the left-hand side of the screen.
Final proofreading in English: Tom Hoemig