For sexual minorities, “closing space” for civil society means losing access to critical services

In much of the world, organizations working with gender and sexual minorities (GSM) have never had an open space to work in. For these groups, the idea of “closing space” is not a shift—it’s been their daily reality for decades. Unfortunately, many mainstream human rights organizations miss the fact that GSM-oriented organizations deliver critical services, not just advocacy. Closing civic space for these groups has become intrinsically linked to denial of services, and mainstream rights groups are not working hard enough to protect this access.

When a Kenyan government committee recommended “banning organisations involved in indecency, espionage or terrorism,” for example, very few of the big rights groups in Kenya offered much support to GSM-oriented civil society organizations. To fight on their own, many GSM groups have been using the courts to help win victories. Whether it has been appealing the repressive Ugandan anti-gay law, or ordering the un-freezing of bank accounts in Kenya, or ruling against the denial of registration of LEGABIBO (an LGBT rights group) in Botswana, most of these court victories are based on constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of most open and democratic countries, and held under the International Declaration of Human Rights. But in many countries where space for gender and sexual minorities is highly restricted, governments are increasingly challenging the universality of rights, casting this concept as a Western European and American narrative. If this strategy is successful over time, more and more marginalized people will lose access not only to advocacy and support groups, but also to critical services that they need.

The Kenyan high court, for example, has ruled that the government may not block a prominent GSM organization—the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC)—but the group is still unregistered. In Botswana, a similar organization has only recently won a protracted case in court for registration. The reaction to the judgement was swift, especially by the Catholic Church, which called it “a deliberate attempt by certain individuals and institutions to push dangerous agendas and ideologies that are unnatural, un-African and un-Christian.” Unfortunately besides international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, other mainstream organizations seem to have mostly ignored the situation.

Compounding the problem is that closing civic spaces for marginalized groups in Africa has largely taken the form of police raids where these (often illegal) groups are known to frequent, especially the venues where they access services. When Nigeria passed a law outlawing same-sex marriage, this escalated discrimination against homosexuals and the overall homophobic climate of the country, resulting in the effective denial of access for GSM people to health care, housing, employment and protection from violence. HIV and AIDS research and treatment sites are particularly vulnerable to attacks because, by their nature, they offer services tailored to the needs of marginalized groups.

Press Association Images/Uncredited (All rights reserved)

Ugandan homosexuals take up residence in a safe house. The work of GSM rights groups is essential to securing the safety and welfare of gender and sexual minorities in Africa.

In Kenya, for example, the Muslims of Human Rights (MUHURI) provide safe injection sites to prevent the sharing of needles among drug users, as studies show that needle sharing facilitates the spread of HIV. As a result, when the state froze the group's bank accounts, it was not human rights advocacy alone that was affected; the crackdown also threatened the safety and wellbeing of people who need HIV treatment and care. And all too often, these are people who cannot access alternative service provision outlets. Yet, to officials ordering these raids, it does not seem to matter whether the service access points are owned and/or managed by reputable organizations, such as the US military research programs that fund the Walter Reed project in Uganda, or the government-owned Kenya Research program, KEMRI.

Access to resources is also directly linked to service provision to these vulnerable groups. Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly and association, notes that the right to freedom of association includes the ability “to seek, receive and use resources—human, material and financial—from domestic, foreign, and international sources”. Funding for those organizations representing marginalized groups is critical to their success, because they are unlikely to raise resources from their membership—who also suffer from economic impoverishment—or even from wealthier citizens in their home country due to fear or prejudice, as Alice Nkom has pointed out about Cameroon. Overall there are very few organizations that fund GSM or LGBT-specific issues globally. Even for the few organizations that do, GSM specified funding represents only a tiny portion of their budgets— usually less than 1%.

A key issue in this regard is that many governments and citizens see these groups as undeserving of spaces to organize and claim their rights. 

A key issue in this regard is that many governments and citizens see these groups as undeserving of spaces to organize and claim their rights, in some cases even criminalizing their conduct. Structural stigma is an important determination of—or at least a justification for—further closing civic spaces that are already extremely narrow to begin with. This stigma also affects social stratification, which then leads to the definition of the “allowed” versus the “disallowed”, determining who can organize and participate in civic spaces and who cannot.

To get around the stigmatization problem, some organizations have chosen names that do not reveal the nature of their membership or target audience of their services. For example, after the GSM organization Tanzania Sisi kwa Sisi Foundation was deregistered, they simply sought registration under a new identity. Other GSM organizations have chosen not to register as a GSM service organization to avoid the heavy cost, especially that of violence, which comes with being openly so identified. Unfortunately, this makes it even harder for people in need of health or other services to find GSM organizations, particularly for individuals who are not already connected to existing social networks.

However, fostering international partnerships with international organizations such as UNAIDS and the UN Human Rights Council has been very helpful for GSM organizations that do not want to hide and are seeking to burnish their local and regional legitimacy. From Bangladesh—where the UN helped activists pressure the government on homophobic laws—to Seychelles—where parliament recently decriminalized sodomy—the universal periodic review of the United Nations Human Rights Council has been an effective tool for GSM organizations to highlight human rights abuses and to decriminalize homosexual acts.

Finally, when discussing closing space for civil society, it is vital to consider the day-to-day reality for gender and sexual minorities. While advocating for their human rights is integral to improving their lives, funders and advocates must remember that for GSM people in these restrictive countries, closing space also means closing access to critical services—which for many of them can make the difference between life and death.