26 February 2014

Africa: Using ICTs to Advance the LGBTI Rights Struggle


With the advent of the pervasive information and communications technologies, communities advocating sexual and gender minority rights can learn useful lessons on how to deploy these technologies to further the cause

It is a unique time for human rights advocates and practitioners engaged in the fight to increase sexual and gender minority rights across the African region.

eightened international media attention has centered on the struggle for fair and equal treatment of LBGTI persons around the world, an issue brought to the limelight most recently by the 'gay-Propoganda' law and activist actions surrounding the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Efforts to increase public awareness and pressure on policy makers across Africa to develop valid and reliable measures of hate motivated crimes against sexual and gender minorities are coming from diverse sectors.

African civil society, the HIV/AIDS community, a growing number of non-governmental organizations, human rights lobby groups alongside the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have been at the forefront of this campaign. However, these trends must be viewed soberly.

For example in East Africa, media outlets and activists in Kenya are raising the alarm on the increased number of violent attacks against gay men, male sex workers and transgender women.

Local news outlets are publishing stories based on areas with the highest concentrations of homosexuals, a touchy subject that heightens the spaces of vulnerability in which these individuals often reside.

In Tanzania, religious leaders actively campaign against LGBTI rights, hate speech against sexual minorities is common place, and police abuse of LGBT persons has included blocking critical access to life saving anti-retroviral therapies.

The security situation for LGBTI individuals continues to stagnate while homosexuality has been banned afresh in Uganda. These are just a few examples.

An article discussing the challenges to documenting rape in Africa, which continue to hamper effective prevention efforts across the continent and internationally, highlighted the need for increase data security and information sharing protocols to protect minority populations and those who have suffered sexual and hate motivated violence, and the agents who operate to provide them services.

In this general review, informed heavily by Caroline Muthoni Muriithi, the Sexual Violence and Trafficking program officer at Equality Now in Nairobi, constraints on effective programming such as lack of reliable data on actual occurrences due to a complexity of social factors that inhibit reporting were identified.

This discussion is not new, what is, however, are the many innovative and dynamic applications to track sexual violence and hate-motivated crimes through social media and collaborative mapping such as the Women Under Siege projects in Sierra Leonne, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Egypt and Libya that have sprung up in response to these atrocities.

These and other efforts have increasingly been utilized by advocates seeking to strengthen the base of evidence available to practitioners while also providing witness for survivors - which can be particularly useful in countries or regions where weak or ineffective public institutions lack quality assurance in human rights and the rule of law.

These lessons are timely and relevant to organizations and individuals working towards increased equity and access for LGBTI persons across the continent.

As an example, the Being LGBT in Asia project is a crowdsourced instance that seeks to map the 'Successes and Barriers to LGBT Rights in Asia'.

This Ushahidi-based map tracks a wide diversity of social trends and population indicators across regional outlets, intended to provide an understanding of the challenges faced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in Asia.

This joint analysis is being undertaken by grassroots LGBT organizations and community leaders in the region, together with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), utilizing a participatory approach to the documentation of legal, social and environmental challenges faced by LGBT persons across civil society institutions.

How can our community learn from these efforts and draw on existing knowledge to provide informed and engaged content with which to further advocate for sexual and gender minority rights? What does the Pan-African community stand to gain from a collaborative effort to map actual human rights abuses of LGBTI persons?

Given the rapid spread of mobile phones and internet technologies across the continent Africans are engaging online at unprecedented rates. Agents on both sides of the fight are increasingly turning to social media channels to promote their message.

How can we, as a community, draw on the lessons learned in these existing applications to further informed and critical debate? A project called the Geography of Hate, developed by Dr. Monica Stephens at Humboldt State University, drew data on 150,000 tweets sourced by the DOLLY project out of the University of Kentucky.

Heat maps of hate speech were generated after researchers hand-filtered tweets categorizing them as positive, neutral or negative based on a pre-defined rubric.

Negative messages were mapped to the county level to protect privacy and actual tweet locations, which highlights an interesting gray area of security concern. By blinding this data, one has effectively "protected" perpetrators of these crimes, an issue also identified in the proposal found here on Praxis's Mapping Sexual Assault proposal site.

This is an area of legal and policy research that is currently being prioritized across gender, public health, judicial and development fields.

In the struggle for LGBTI rights in Africa these instances provide important avenues for exploration in developing an informed understanding of social and cultural issues that often are more difficult to capture in formalized survey and public opinion polling.

Further, by mapping this information across countries and communities advocates are able to target priority areas for intervention and program development.

This extends as well to issues of resource mobilization, political activism and legal service provision to individuals seeking asylum outside of their home countries, such as Nigeria or Uganda where being homosexual carries a lengthy jail sentence and the possibility of death.

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has produced a comparative mapping on the status of sexual and gender minority rights globally.

The map covers a range of social, legal and institutional indicators and its dataset provides researchers and advocates with a critical resource while also linking out to timely analysis of current trends across sectors.

Such information can be one tool for our lobbyist and development workers who are advocating for change, but organizations and digital activists also need to be careful when publicizing socially mined data that has the potential to be utilized by repressive governments and individuals to further human rights violations.

We must be strategic in how we implement and advance our cause in the digital space. These experiences raise important issues on the implications on activists working to document sensitive human rights abuses that are sexual in nature or motivated by hate.

Critical to this work will be the development of communication and information sharing protocols that protect sexual and gender minorities while also providing practitioners and policy makers with concrete data on the scope of problem faced.

By building on the lessons from other contexts and utilizing a participatory approach that centers LGBTI individuals at the heart of the decision making process for documentation and development of an evidence base it is possible that sustained impact can be achieved in supporting this fight.

Hilary Nicole Zainab Ervin is mapper and gender-based violence expert with a background in public health and development. Her passion lies in data analytics and security for the grassroots, she currently lives and works in East Africa.


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