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Global Roundup: Argentina Trans Women Testify, Congo WHO Sexual Abuse Victims, Queer Ugandans Speak Out, Russia Intersex Rights, Celebrating Mi'kma'ki Women
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
Julieta Gonzalez poses for a photo inside the Banfield Pit, where the Argentine military dictatorship held her for a month, in Buenos Aires, on 23 May 2023. Photograph: Víctor R Caivano/AP
A group of five trans women testified at a trial over crimes committed at secret prisons, marking the first time trans women persecuted during Argentina’s 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship were given their day in court. During that period of military rule, as many as 30,000 people were murdered or forcibly disappeared; hundreds are believed to have passed through the Banfield Pit, a clandestine detention center.
The trans women formed part of a large case that began in 2020 and is prosecuting crimes against humanity committed at three clandestine detention and torture centers, among them the Banfield Pit, which also acted as a clandestine maternity ward, where newborns were taken from their captive mothers and raised by other families. The case involves 442 victims, and 16 accused, three of whom have died since being charged. Closing arguments are slated for this month.
One witness, Paola Alagastino, said guards would single out the trans women for particular torment, recalling how they would use homophobic and transphobic slurs and threats of violence.
They treated us like animals, because that’s what we were for them. -Carla Fabiana Guttierez, trans witness
Anti-trans violence was not new, but the dictatorship brought “an intensification” of the violence and oppression that trans women knew all too well, said Ana Oberlin, a federal prosecutor. The fact that many trans women worked in the sex trade made it “easier to hunt them down”, Oberlin argued. Oberlin said that the state terror was “part of the violence that has to do with constantly discriminating and separating people who are outside of the heteronormativity, as if they were part of another world”. When she started tracking down the survivors, she found many had long wanted to tell their stories, but didn’t think the courts would listen.
We have never had the right to truth, to justice, to memory and to feel that our bodies matter. This moment, this trial, is extremely significant. -Marlene Wayar, a trans activist, writer and social psychologist
Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, WHO Director, Prevention of and Response to Sexual Misconduct, speaks during the 76th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, May 25, 2023 (Antoine Tardy/WHO)
Internal documents show the World Health Organisation (WHO) paid $250 to victims in Congo who were sexually abused by WHO employees during the Ebola outbreak and made them take a training course to receive the money.
Earlier this year, the doctor who leads the World Health Organization’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse travelled to Congo to address the biggest known sex scandal in the UN health agency’s history: the abuse of well over 100 local women by staffers and others during a deadly Ebola outbreak. According to an internal WHO report from Dr Gaya Gamhewage’s trip in March, one of the abused women she met gave birth to a baby with “a malformation that required special medical treatment.” To help victims like her, the WHO has paid $250 each to at least 104 women in Congo who say they were sexually abused or exploited by officials working to stop Ebola.
That amount per victim is less than a single day’s expenses for some UN officials working in the Congolese capital – and $19 more than what Gamhewage received per day during her three-day visit. The amount covers typical living expenses for less than four months in a country where, the WHO documents noted, many people survive on less than $2.15 a day.
The payments to women didn’t come freely. To receive the cash, they were required to complete training courses intended to help them start “income-generating activities.” The payments appear to try to circumvent the UN's stated policy that it doesn’t pay reparations by including the money in what it calls a “complete package” of support.
Paula Donovan, who co-directs the Code Blue campaign to eliminate what it calls impunity for sexual misconduct in the UN, described the WHO payments to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation as “perverse.” Requiring the women to attend training before receiving the cash set uncomfortable conditions for victims of wrongdoing seeking help, Donovan added.
It’s not unheard of for the UN to give people seed money so they can boost their livelihoods, but to mesh that with compensation for a sexual assault, or a crime that results in the birth of a baby, is unthinkable. -Paula Donovan
The two women who met with Gamhewage told her that what they most wanted was for the “perpetrators to be brought to account so they could not harm anyone else,” the WHO documents said. Audia, 24, said she was impregnated when a WHO official forced her to have sex to get a job during the outbreak. She now has a five-year-old daughter as a result and received a “really insufficient” $250 from WHO after taking courses in tailoring and baking. She worries about what might happen in a future health crisis in conflict-hit eastern Congo, where poor infrastructure and resources mean any emergency response relies heavily on outside help from the WHO and others.
I can’t put my trust in (WHO) anymore. When they abandon you in such difficulties and leave you without doing anything, it’s irresponsible. -Audia
The situation is “worse than it has ever been” for LGBTQ+ Ugandans, but those who flee the country face discrimination elsewhere. (Getty Images)
Henry Mukiibi, the executive director of LGBTQ+ group Uganda’s Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF), has been on the run and living in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, since earlier this year, after receiving information that the authorities in Uganda wanted to arrest him under the new anti-homosexuality legislation.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was enacted in May and carries the death penalty for certain same-sex acts, has unleashed a torrent of abuse against LGBTQ+ people in Uganda. Several queer individuals have been arrested. Others, including Mukiibi, managed to escape as their government enacted one of the harshest anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the world.
COSF’s services, which provide healthcare and legal assistance as well as shelter for vulnerable people, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, have been affected by the legislation. Mukiibi says he witnessed people become “so homophobic” that they “started attacking” COSF committee members, “beating them because of who they are”.
Evictions have become too many because the bill had a phrase which said landlords should not give LGBT people shelter or houses to rent. Many people were evicted. Those whose landlords knew their identities, they were evicted because the landlords fear they will also be taken to prison. We welcomed those people into our shelter, but unfortunately, our shelter’s landlord wrote me an eviction letter since they know I’m a queer person. -Henry Mukiib
Uganda was already one of several African nations where it’s illegal to be queer and enacted a previous anti-homosexuality act in 2014. The courts struck it down, although being LGBTQ+ remained illegal because of previous legislation. Police used COVID-19 as a pretence to raid COSF’s facilities for the LGBTQ+ community, accusing residents of breaking social-distancing regulations. Furthermore, US-based Christian groups – known for fighting everything from reproductive rights to the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people – have invested heavily across Africa over the past decade, pushing a strictly conservative agenda.
Mukiibi says life is really hard in Nairobi as he waits to be resettled in another country. Kenya also criminalises LGBTQ+ people and many queer asylum seekers from Uganda are forced to out themselves. While fearing for his own safety, he still thinks about the LGBTQ+ community trying to survive in Uganda.
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A law enforcement officer stands guard during the LGBT community rally "X St.Petersburg Pride" in central Saint Petersburg, Russia August 3, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Fearing prosecution under a new law, Russian doctors are wary about treating intersex patients. Born intersex and raised as a boy, Polina has known for years that she wanted to live as a woman. But Russia’s sweeping curbs on gender-affirming healthcare have made that much more difficult. The 33-year-old from Moscow said that since a new law – which targets transgender people – was passed in July, doctors had been wary about prescribing her female sex hormones and other gender-affirming treatment for fear they could lose their licences or face prosecution.
The new law, which bans legally or medically changing gender, does allow people described as having "congenital anomalies" to undergo medical interventions and then change legal gender, but intersex rights advocates say it is vaguely worded and poorly understood by doctors. Despite the new legislation, Polina was able to change her legal gender on her identity documents to female in late October, but campaigners said they feared other intersex people could be wrongly denied that right.
Many may not be able to change their documents if their sex variation is not deemed appropriate grounds for it. -Alin, co-director of ARSI (a group that supports intersex people in Russian-speaking countries) and founder of nfp.plus (a website publishing information about intersex issues)
Advocates have also said they were concerned that intersex people had been mentioned in the legislation at all, saying the law's distinction between them and trans people appeared a crude attempt to justify anti-trans measures.
Intersex people's needs (for gender-affirming treatment) are presented as having a biological basis, while those of transgender people are seen as simply whims. -Ilia Savelev, a co-director and legal adviser at ARSI
The gender change law was the latest step in a widespread crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights, which President Vladimir Putin seeks to portray as evidence of moral decay in Western countries. Last year, he signed a law expanding Russia's restrictions on the promotion of what it calls "LGBT propaganda" and in June, the Health Ministry said Russian clinics would soon be staffed with sexologists to help patients "overcome" homosexuality and various sexual "mental disorders". Besides their concern about the impact of the gender law passed in July, the crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights has unsettled intersex rights campaigners in Russia.
History isn’t something relegated to the past in Mi’kmaw culture. This worldview helps shape the way Mi’kmaq experience history: it’s alive, and in the here and now. And that’s a guiding light for the people profiled in a CBC article: Mi’kmaw women in the present moment, connecting to the past and future generations through their culture and caring work. That work can look like a lot of things. From language lessons, to cooking for feasts or even driving people to and from doctor’s appointments — it’s all rooted in a love for community, and has a historical importance all its own, according to Mercedes Peters, a historian and a member of the Glooscap First Nation, in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada. Two stories from the article will be highlighted here.
As Rebecca LaBillois holds up flash cards, her students yell out numbers in Mi’kmaw, a language her family has spent decades revitalizing. Ms. Beckie — as her students affectionately know her — says teaching the students is deeply rewarding. She holds her language and culture classes at the band office in Ugpi’ganjig, or Eel River Bar First Nation, in northern New Brunswick, Canada.
It makes me feel good, it makes me feel wanted and makes me feel loved because when I come in here, you have that unconditional love of the children. Rebecca LaBillois, 58
The students introduced to smudging, drumming and cultural teachings — where LaBillois can share her knowledge as a medicine harvester — as well as language lessons. Maggie Jo Julian, 4, is one of her students and LaBillois’s great niece, she enjoys learning stories of the Mi’kmaw legends. Maggie Jo wants to learn Mi’kmaw, “so we can listen to Ms. Beckie.”
Amelia Joe found herself in culture shock when she moved from Miawpukek First Nation, in Conne River, Newfoundland, to the province’s capital in St. John’s. She first encountered First Light, a non-profit organization that serves the city’s Indigenous communities, through its after-school program. Now as an adult, she works there, and it’s eased her sense of urban isolation.
Through working at First Light I was able to grow. Just by being around people who encourage me to share my culture … that also encourages the fostering of community. That makes you feel whole and loved, and it lets you know you’re not alone. -Amelia Joe
Joe is First Light’s cultural youth programs facilitator, and is often the first point of contact for urban Indigenous people when they need cultural support or education, particularly with youth. Mi'kmaq history informs Joe on how to move toward the future in the most authentic way, she said.
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is an aspiring urban planner studying at Toronto Metropolitan University. Throughout the years, she has worked in nonprofits with survivors of sexual violence and youth. Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She loves learning about the diverse forms of feminist resistance around the world.