By Luckmore Jalasi, Global Capacity Strengthening Officer, Free to be Me
It’s 9 AM on a hot summer day in Lusaka, Zambia, and Simalumba, a pro bono lawyer, is visiting a client named Suzyo who has been incarcerated for over a year without trial. Suzyo is being held under Namibia’s colonial-era sodomy laws. Suspecting him, his landlord broke into his rented room while Suzyo’s partner was present, beat him, and placed him under citizen’s arrest until the police arrived.
Suzyo is one of approximately 35 inmates imprisoned under sodomy laws who have spent months to years in prison without trial. In 2022 alone, 18 sodomy cases were reported to the police, resulting in 15 arrests. Muleta, a human rights defender, has been pursuing these cases and seeking bail for the inmates. This despite the danger to his own life, social media backlash, and isolation from his religious community.
Marking 75 years of human rights
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we remember courageous individuals like Simalumba and Muleta who fight for justice and equality. To commemorate this milestone, the Hivos Free to be Me team, along with grantees, joins the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network and the UN Human Rights Commission in their efforts. While there are positive developments to celebrate – such as the inclusion of Bills of Rights in the Constitutions of all Southern African countries and the end of apartheid in Namibia and South Africa – the region has witnessed a decline in the protection of human rights defenders.
Protecting frontline human rights defenders
Working to uphold constitutional reform, women’s rights, and reproductive health rights, activists can help build a broader coalition and bring LGBTIQ+ rights to the forefront of other human rights issues. But frontline human rights defenders, especially those advocating for LGBTIQ+ rights, are vulnerable to physical and mental harm. They are frequently targeted by authorities, media, and anti-gender activists.
The Southern African Human Rights Defenders Summit this November offered a unique opportunity for LGBTIQ+ rights defenders to connect with other activists. Fifteen LGBTIQ+ rights defenders, supported by Hivos’ Free to be Me program, participated in this forum for the first time. Hivos is raising awareness about the pending onslaught of anti-gender rights movements that are not only targeting LGBTIQ+ rights activists, but also SRHR activists and others calling for progressive constitutional reforms. We are also building alliances beyond our usual crowds.
At a panel discussion on safeguarding gender rights defenders, Jholerina Timo, the Free to be Me Community of Action facilitator for Namibia, spoke on the need to “find collaboration and respect for our humanity” as she shared her insights at a panel discussion on safeguarding gender rights defenders, alongside the Minister of Justice of Namibia, the Minister of Civic Education of Malawi, and the UN Human Rights Council Director.
The closing event then featured the documentary “Behind the Numbers”, which was followed by a public debate.
Private sector accountability
This November’s summit highlighted the importance of holding private sector actors accountable for their actions, and not just governments. Some companies proudly display rainbow flags during Pride Month and promote diversity policies, yet they finance land grabs in Africa, leading to displacement, violence, and environmental degradation. We must be cautious about partnering with private entities and ensure they do not contribute to harmful practices.