Rights are Needed to Correct the Wrongs
For centuries now women’s autonomy has been sacrificed and compromised at the altar of heteronormativity and patriarchal norms. African societies are no innocent bystanders when it comes to overlooking and abusing women’s human rights.
Add to the complex matrix the alarming statement made by a Ugandan minister claiming “men raping girls is natural and that heterosexual rape is morally preferable to consensual homosexual activity”, which only bolsters attitudes that continue to sustain the culture of silence, shame and tabooed social norms around sexuality, especially female sexuality, and harshly impact the ways in which both heterosexual majorities and other sexual minorities are bound to be received and treated in the larger scheme of development discourse. The alienating implications for girls and women in particular could be highly disquieting, especially in the ways it could and would define access to some of the essential public services like health care, employment, housing, among others.
Speaking in the light of the precarious and rather fear-provoking environment of homophobia as fuelled by religious bigotry and politically motivated mind-sets in Uganda and Nigeria (including those reflective of the dominant public discourse on how non conforming idea of sexualities are viewed in other country contexts like India, Russia), it is of utmost importance that we understand sexuality beyond it being merely an expression of physicality. In that sense ‘right to sexuality’ as a human right deserves a wider dialogue. It is not only about addressing the more pressing concerns related to reproductive health and HIV prevention but also because as citizens of their respective countries these women have the basic human right to live with freedom and dignity, and the right to be protected as promised to them by their respective constitutions. Are we not committing a crime against humanity by going against the very idea of ‘constitutional morality’ that many African nations claim to uphold. Men or women, gays or lesbians, nobody should have to compromise on their freedom to exist as they chose to be. What is the point of signing all the national and international conventions, charters, and protocols when the underlying agenda continues to remain prejudiced against the vulnerable groups. Instead of protection and justice, the systematic violence only serves to push those who chose not to adhere to the pre-defined notions of gender and sexual expression to the margins.
At the same time while the integrality of such a right is essential to realising equality and justice across people and diverse identities at large, “this centering of the question of sexuality is always a way of diverting attention from political and economic questions on the control of natural resources or instances of corruption.” Recently, a field study for another project that I have been working on brought me face-to-face with a combined group of female sex workers and transgender people living in constant fear and subject to scrutiny. I learnt that the illegality of their profession made it rather difficult for them to access some of the basic services like health care, education for their children, housing, and something as basic as an ‘aadhar card’ (it is a unique identification number given to every Indian citizen). Moreover, access to information became a tedious task because of the perceived stigma attached to their ‘chosen’ way of earning a livelihood. Their experience and stories of suffering daily harassment and violence at the hands of ‘rowdies’ got me thinking that just because they did not fit into the neat categories of what is ‘respectful and proper’, they as entities did not matter, their bodies did not matter, their problems did not matter.
In the last few years evidence based research across the globe has been geared towards collecting similar stories making the interconnections between sexual orientation and social and economic marginalisation. This writing is an attempt to put together some of my thoughts and bring attention to the very fact that in this all absorbing concern with upholding traditions and customs, we are actively undermining and depriving women and other vulnerable groups (in this case the sexual minorities) of some of the very basic rights and subjecting them to a perpetual state of exclusion and inequality. It is this systematic persecution that needs to criticised and questioned.
It is imperative that we realise that “sexual rights is a precondition for reproductive rights and for gender equality”. More than that it is about the rights of all Ugandan and Nigerian citizens to be able to live with dignity and respect irrespective of what gender, sexuality, religion, caste they identify with. Instead of hunting them down the need of the hour is to make them and their ongoing movement visible; to open the hitherto closed spaces to participate as equal citizens.
By Surbhi MAHAJAN