Keith Goddard of the organisation Gay and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) suggests that attitudes towards LGBTI rights are a 'litmus test for any democracy'. Human rights must be all inclusive in protecting 'minorities from the excesses of the majority as they protect populations from excesses of the state'.
It is reassuring when one can assume the protection of a large body of international instruments espousing values about rights and freedoms for all members of humanity. But how do these noble documents translate into the lives of ordinary people, in particular the lives of the poor and powerless who need the greatest protection?
They seem particularly abstract and remote at the moment for the lives of most ordinary Zimbabweans, many of whom are struggling to merely survive, or are scrambling to escape from the prevailing political chaos. And in Zimbabwe, it is not only the poor and powerless who are disadvantaged - it is everybody.
The severe deterioration in the human rights record of Zimbabwe has led to a situation where no one’s rights are any longer guaranteed. With the breakdown of law and order, any rights afforded are done so at the whim of the state. Government appears invincible, and no one, inside or outside Zimbabwe, seems able to hold it to account. At present, it appears there is little else that we can do other than sit tight, hope for the best, and when the worst happens, make a plan.
But human rights organisations such as GALZ cannot become dormant; they exist and are responsible for bringing about change for the better.
It is easy to argue that GALZ is unique in that it is the only organisation specifically catering to the needs of LGBTI people in Zimbabwe. Ergo GALZ is too small to make any significant impact within the broader environment. But if GALZ disappeared over night, would it make any noticeable difference?
Luckily, the answer is yes, at least for the few hundred members of GALZ, most of whom, according to an evaluation conducted by the Dutch agency Hivos of the Southern African LGBTI programme, feel that their confidence has been boosted since joining the association. They have ‘learnt something’ and have benefited from the association’s services. But as members of the general population, the quality of life for GALZ members is surely still deteriorating.
Within broader society, GALZ has certainly made significant inroads into being at least ‘tolerated’ within the NGO world, although there is often still a reluctance to mainstream LGBTI issues within these organisations' programmes, not necessarily because of any overt homophobia but because of fears of reprisal from the state.
Marginalising of GALZ is unfortunate, although it does make the organisation even more relevant to those it serves. As far as government is concerned, GALZ is at an impasse and has basically given up.
GALZ may seem small and insignificant but human rights are not about numbers. In fact, human rights exist as much to protect minorities from the excesses of the majority as they do to protect populations from excesses of the state. The struggle for the promotion of a human rights culture is not a linear process. Small and often unforeseen victories often turn out to be as important as any major breakthrough. Just hanging on in there and waiting for a chance to seize is a valid enough reason to exist.
It could be argued that attitudes towards LGBTI rights are a litmus test for any democracy: the burst of government attacks on gay and lesbian people, starting in early 1995, marked the start of a new phase in the serious national decline we now find ourselves in. They ought to have been a warning signal that things were about to get worse.
Human rights organisations should never remain inert, even in the face of apparent demoralising failure to achieve anything positive. They need to be strong, refuse to capitulate and instead espouse a culture of hope, even if this is only among a limited few.
With the worsening humanitarian crisis in the country, GALZ has tried to be imaginative and seek the best ways in which to remain relevant, both to the lives of its members, and within broader society. It has been equally cautious to avoid encouraging feelings of dependency amongst its membership, which in the long term benefit no one.
In recent years, the organisation has also fought against its detractors using the LGBTI issue to deflect attention away from the real problems of Zimbabwe, preferring not to be reactive towards homophobia, but instead proactive in putting out positive publicity about LGBTI issues, albeit it in a limited way.
A welcome break came in 2006 when GALZ was introduced by the Kosmopolis Institute of the University for Humanistics in Utrecht to the 'Capability Approach' developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. This is a conceptual framework which attempts to measure the ability of a human being to enjoy his or her life, both in terms of drawing on what is available within the broader social environment, and in terms of an individual’s personal capacity to benefit from his or her surroundings.
The Capability Approach is not an alternative to the human rights discourse: it could be described as the flip side to the same coin. As its name suggests, the difference lies more in the approach, focusing as it does on the way in which human rights translate into meaningful experience. The ten basic capabilities are particularly relevant to situations where human rights are denied. They help measure an individual’s ability to cope and perhaps even flourish under difficult circumstances. They are summarised as follows:
- Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
- Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
- Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
- Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason - and to do these things in a 'truly human' way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one's own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
- Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one's emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
- Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
- Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.
- Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
- Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
- Control over one's Environment:
Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.
Although it is problematic in Zimbabwe to maintain ‘control over one’s environment’, this in no way diminishes the relevance of the other nine capabilities to the work of an organisation such as GALZ. It is precisely because of the lack of political freedoms that Zimbabwe is now in crisis and plunging into deeper decline and poverty and why other measures of progress need to be taken into consideration.
The GALZ social empowerment programmes, Skills for Life and the Women’s Scholarship Programme, are obvious examples of the application of the Capability Approach, although the organisation adopted them prior to its being aware of this philosophy.
Although it could be argued that the 'Positive Image' access to treatment scheme has encouraged dependency, it has nevertheless saved and given extended quality to the lives of those who would otherwise have died of Aids.
It may seem trivial for a philosophy to incorporate the ability to laugh, play and enjoy recreational activities. But in an oppressive political and homophobic climate, merely offering safe space to relax in is not something to be denigrated. The very existence of the GALZ Centre and the safe space it offers is an encouraging symbol of hope, although there are questions about whether it is enough to provide just a place to drink and dance. To balance this, GALZ has now instituted a programme of entertainment, including sporting activities designed to provide greater variety in members’ lives.
In 2006, GALZ started to move away from serious workshops which, in the past, it has felt obligated to provide as part of fulfilling a mandate that was seen as serious. Although workshops still have their place, the more informal, relaxed group discussions have proved highly popular, since most participants see these opportunities to talk and share ideas as liberating and a chance to express opinions freely, and be treated with respect. And just listening to the experiences of others trying to cope with family pressures can be more helpful than a formal workshop on relationships when it comes to dispelling feelings of confusion and doubt.
The emotional development of a human being is as important as his or her physical protection. The increasing professionalism of GALZ’s counselling services means that members are receiving meaningful help in dealing with emotional problems. By the same token, the annual women’s retreat has proved an invaluable space in which women can open up, often about painful emotional experiences, and gain support from others. But it is often the casual conversations in the health department or the recreational activities of a retreat that help the most.
In all, the Capability Approach is proving useful for determining the ability of GALZ members to reach their full capacity as humans, whether or not they are denied fundamental freedoms such as freedom from hunger and freedom of expression. Many members have used GALZ as a stepping stone to make significant improvements in their lives. Those who have escaped and sought asylum elsewhere can be included in this. This is at it should be. In the wider context, if GALZ were to disappear overnight, LGBTI people in the rest of Africa and the world would be devastated: they would have lost a close member of the family and a strong source of inspiration to continue fighting for justice for all LGBTI people throughout the world.
* Keith Goddard is a human rights defender and a member of GALZ Zimbabwe.
* Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org