Global Roundup: Madres de Primera Linea,  #ReleaseThe21 Campaign, #FunkItImWalking Sex Workers Protest, Syrian and Palestinian Refugee Embroiderers, Brazilian Photographer Captures Black Queer Joy

Compiled by Samiha Hossain

A group of 10 mothers, friends from a neighbourhood in south Bogota, stepped forward in mid-May to protect protesters expressing their discontent in continuing demonstrations [Kiran Stallone/Al Jazeera]

Madres de Primera Linea (Mothers on the front Line) are a group of 10 mothers in Colombia that have been putting their bodies between police and protesters, and preventing the escalation of violence during the ongoing mass protests in the country. 

We came together as neighbours and friends because we saw how hard they (anti-riot police) were fighting against our young people, including underage kids… We are all single mothers, heads of our households: If we don’t stand up for them, who is going to do it? - Alias La Flaca (not her real name)

Nationwide strikes and demonstrations began in Colombia at the end of April, originally against a proposed tax reform. The tax plan was later withdrawn by the government, but protesters are now demanding health, educational and police reforms.

The mothers stepped forward in mid-May to protect demonstrators protesting the ESMAD, Colombia’s anti-riot police. Rights groups and the United Nations have raised concerns over the use of force against protesters in Colombia. At least 43 people have been killed and 2,905 cases of police violence have been recorded to date according to rights group Temblores. One of the members of Madres de Primera Linea, Johana, said she has been tear-gassed during the protests. The group relies on donations from feminist human rights groups to purchase equipment to keep themselves safe. 

We never attack; we wait until they attack us. We stand with the protesters to make sure that nothing happens to them, that they don’t take them away and disappear them - Alias La Flaca

Every day, they go to Portal de Las Americas, which protesters have renamed Portal de la Resistencia (“Resistance Portal”), where they have established what they call a humanitarian zone – a place of games, activities for children and other festivities. The mothers are aware of the risks and are no strangers to receiving threats, yet they are willing to take these risks if it means changing their country for the better. Together, they join the tradition of Latin American women in social movements subverting the “passive mother” stereotype.

Women around the world have always been at the forefront of protests. These mothers’ actions are inspiring and speak to their love for their community. We must pay attention to the police violence that is taking innocent lives and stand in solidarity with the protestors in Colombia.

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The online campaign #ReleaseThe21 went viral on Twitter after Ghana’s LGBTQ community called for the immediate release of 21 people arrested while attending a conference for LGBTQI people in the southeastern city of Ho. A police spokesman said in a statement that the detained individuals were arrested for “advocating LGBTQI activities.” The 21 have been charged with “unlawful assembly” and are to be remanded in police custody until their appearance in court in June. 

Ghana outlaws same-sex relationships, which is punishable for up to 25 years in prison. Alex Kofi Donkor, the head of a community center in Accra, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, which was raided by police in February, said that the conference was a paralegal training for gay activists, as discrimination against sexual minorities remains prevalent in the country.

LGBTQ persons continuously experience indiscriminate arrest and discrimination in Ghana because of their known or perceived sexual orientation... so some organizations chose to train some individuals within their various localities on human rights laws that exist in Ghana and how they can protect themselves and deal with issues of abuses when they arise within their local spaces - Alex Kofi Donkor

Human right lawyers’ efforts to secure the release of the detainees have been rejected by the Ho Circuit Court. Several rights groups have called the arrests illegal, as the detainees did not have access to legal representation, and some suffered medical illnesses and needed treatment for trauma.

LGBT+ Rights Ghana remains closed since the police raid and Donkor says that homophobia manifests in various forms in Ghana including lynching in some neighborhoods and police arresting LGBTQ individuals who report issues of abuse. He hopes that the #ReleaseThe21 campaign will open up a public dialogue on tolerance and respect for gay rights in Ghana.

We are hoping that the government of Ghana, individuals, human rights advocates, and activists in this country will rise and speak against the injustice and the abuse that the police have meted out and continues to mete out towards the LGBTQ community - Alex Kofi Donkor

It is appalling that LGBTQ people are not even safe in a conference that is meant to train them to deal with the discrimination they face daily. LGBTQ people should have the right to simply exist and gather at the very least. People are expressing outrage and demanding for justice using the #ReleaseThe21 hashtag.

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Members of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) demand decriminalisation of sex work. Picture: Sweat

Sex workers protested on the streets of Johannesburg earlier this week to demand that sex work be decriminalized. The country’s sex work laws date back to the apartheid era and punish both sex workers and their clients.

We are not saying the decriminalization of sex work will completely erase the stigma and discrimination, but it will bring about access to justice, health and protection for sex workers. It will contribute to a safer working environment. - Constance Mathe

People from sex workers’ rights groups and supporters gathered at the Beyers Naude Square in Johannesburg for the #FunkItImWalking. The campaign aims to raise awareness to make the streets of Johannesburg safer for women. They sang struggle songs and chanted “Funk it I’m walking! Let’s walk to freedom.” The walk was organized as a collaboration between Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke, and the Asijiki Coalition.

For as long as the state criminalises sex workers, who are adults working to sustain their families, there is no freedom - Katlego Rasebitse of Sisonke sex workers advocacy group

Sex workers have been having difficulty opening cases of gender-based violence, and some sex workers are profiled, targeted and arrested by the police as well. Police also ask for bribes and sexual favours. The group will submit a memorandum to the City of Johannesburg, including a a call for the prioritization of women’s safety in the city, as well as the decriminalization of sex work. They hope to host #FunkItImWalking walks annually until the  demands are met.

Protesters say that sex work is work that requires skill. Constance Mathe, Asijiki Coalition coordinator who has been a sex worker for 16 years, says she has been able to purchase a house through the profession.

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The initiative provides embroiders with a sustainable livelihood. Credit: Larissa von Planta

A local non-profit in Lebanon, Alsama Project, is collaborating with sustainable fashion designer Larissa von Planta to provide embroidery work for Syrian and Palestinian refugee women and empower them.

Planta worked in Beirut for several years, until the worsening economic situation led her to move back home to London, right before the tragic explosion that destroyed Beirut’s city centre in 2020. Feeling powerless, she contacted Alsama Project for a collaboration. Alsama Studios is run by Fatima Khalifa, who fled Syria with her children in 2012. The studio operates from one of Lebanon's refugee camps, Bourj al-Barajneh, where Khalifa and the other embroiderers live. Khalifa says that the refugee camp is unsafe with gun violence, drugs and appalling health conditions. 

I wanted to provide work for these women…They live such precarious lifestyles; they aren't Lebanese citizens so there's a lot of instability. They can't go back to their countries. I wanted to make sure work was coming in so they had one less concern - Larissa von Planta

Planta and the embroiderers work together to create unique designs on upcycled pieces of clothing. The embroidery consists of Syrian or Palestinian motifs specific to a location and influenced by the agriculture and surroundings. The upcycling initiative is now called LVP x Alasma Studios. 200 pieces have been embroidered by the 35 refugee women, with the money going towards the workers' wages and various business costs. According to Khalifa, many of the women including herself have been living with depression, and the work helps them cope with that. 

Alsama is very much a place of safety. The women can come and they can talk about things that they can't talk about in their homes…Alsama is a surrogate family and gives the women strength so they can inspire the next generation, their children, to leave the camp one day - Fatima Khalifa

This initiative appears to have a positive effect on the lives of Syrian and Palestinian refugee women who have suffered so much loss. The work of these embroiderers is beautiful and full of culture. We have to continue being critical as to why economic crises hit women and marginalized groups the hardest, why people are being displaced from their homes, and the horrific conditions of refugee camps. 

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Photography Rodrigo Oliveira via i-D

Brazilian photographer Rodrigo Oliveira has created a photo series called Carioca, Negro, Queer (Carioca, meaning someone from Rio, Black, Queer), which documents Black queer joy as an act of resistance in the face of President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-queer and anti-Black political reign. 

The work that I'm doing is for us, for the Black community in the peripheries, for us to see ourselves in a better light. I want us to celebrate the things that we actually have to celebrate: we're beautiful, we're powerful, we've been through so much, and we’re still here and strong and fighting. I'm doing this so we can realise that we deserve to feel beautiful. We deserve to be loved - Rodrigo Oliveira

Rodrigo does his work in the suburbs and in the favelas of Rio, and often captures his friends or his partner, hoping to change the narrative about his community. He is inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.

The pandemic is the longest time Rodrigo has been in his home country since studying biology abroad. He is also inspired by how much more comfortable the LGBTQ community is now to live as their authentic selves. He believes there is a lack of representation of the Black suburban life in Rio, which is highly marginalized. He hopes to uplift his community by documenting their collective fight. Rodrigo wants people to know that communities outside the city are neglected from health and security, and are vulnerable to police and state-sanctioned violence. 

It is time for us to tell our own narratives. Our stories have been told by the eyes of others for such a long time — we have a voice and a space now. - Rodrigo Oliveira

Rodrigo’s photos show a certain softness and intimacy that makes his love for the Black queer community clear. He has found an evocative way to highlight the disparities and regular state violence present in the favelas and suburbs of Rio while also making space for resistance and joy.

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Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.

Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.

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