Global Roundup: Senegal FGM Survivor, Thailand Marriage Equality Bill, South Africa Sex Workers Summit, UK Asexuality Activists, Indigenous Fashion Week
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
Writer and activist Woppa Diallo. Photograph: Courtesy of Woppa Diallo
Woppa Diallo’s work to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and keep girls in school in Senegal has saved others from being cut and now, she and her husband have won the Caine prize for their book based on her experiences.
Diallo harnessed her fury of being cut at the age of 12 and channelled it into a life of activism. At 15, she founded Amfe, L’Association pour le Maintien des Filles à l’Ecole (the Association for Keeping Girls in School) in Matam, her home town in north-east Senegal. She is also a lawyer specialising in human rights. Last month, a story she co-authored with her husband, Mame Bougouma Diene, based on her experiences of violence, won the Caine prize for African writing. They are the first pair to win the award since it began in 2000, and the first winners from Senegal.
A Soul of Small Places, published in 2022, is a coming-of-age story told against a backdrop of African cosmology, in which spirits and humans coexist. Diene, a French-Senegalese American humanitarian and writer, worked with Diallo to create a fictional version of herself.
Diallo’s activism began after she returned to school one year and noticed many of the girls in her class were absent. She asked why and was told they had got married and didn’t have time to attend school. It prompted the creation of Amfe and its first task was persuading the village chief to provide school accommodation for young girls so that they could stay there during the week and return home at the weekend. Diallo then started organising events, including one where a successful woman from the Peule community, to which Diallo belongs, spoke to girls and their parents about careers and opportunities.
More recently, Diallo has held community meetings to discuss FGM and to debunk myths around its religious and cultural relevance. Amfe now has more than 250 members, most of whom are in high school and college, and a presence in 14 villages. Diallo is involved in the UN Girl’s Education Initiative, a feminist network working towards gender equality in education. She believes her grassroots organisation is more powerful at bringing change in Matam than big NGOs who bring echoes of “a return to slavery”.
My organisation is part of the community. We are all the nieces, granddaughters, daughters of someone. People are obliged to listen. -Woppa Diallo
Thailand’s Cabinet has approved an equality bill that would legalise same-sex marriage and submitted it to be debated in parliament next month. If the amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code is approved by parliament and by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand will become the third Asian country – after Taiwan and Nepal – and the first Southeast Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.
The amendment would change words like “man and woman” and “husband and wife” to “marriage partners” or “individuals” so that same-sex couples are included, a deputy government spokesperson said. It would also guarantee same-sex couples the right to form a family. The next step, said the spokesperson, would be an amendment to the country’s pension fund law that would also recognise same-sex couples.
Despite being known for its LGBTQ+-friendly attitudes, Thailand continues to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people by failing to legalise same-sex marriage. In 2022, the country took a step in the right direction by approving legislation to legalise same-sex unions. Although it had avoided the word “marriage”, it did grant same-sex couples the rights to jointly own property, adopt children, and have inheritance rights.
Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan’s parliament passed a law to legalise same-sex marriage which has been in effect since May 2019, making it the first country in the region to enact marriage equality. Ground-breaking legislation to grant same-sex couples full adoption rights was approved earlier this year. Following in Taiwan’s footsteps, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled this June that same-sex couples would be able to legally register their marriages. Despite that ruling, though, Nepalese same-sex couples have still had trouble registering their marriages in lower courts.
Constance Mathe, a sex worker and national coordinator of the Asijiki Coalition said that the decriminalisation bill was taking too long to be approved and that sex sex workers are being “slaughtered like chickens”. Photos: Ashraf Hendricks
SWEAT, a sex worker advocacy organisation in Cape Town, South Africa, held its first sex workers decriminalisation summit. The two day meeting brought together sex workers, their allies, labour and government. Sex worker activists plan to resubmit the sex work decriminalisation bill by March 2024.
Constance Mathe is a sex worker and national coordinator of the Asijiki Coalition. Mathe said they have been fighting for decriminalisation for over 20 years. She said the draft for the bill started eight years ago, with the final submission being handed over to the Department of Justice in March 2022. Then in May the Department of Justice delayed the bill. Mathe said sex workers are “slaughtered like chickens”, which is something decriminalisation can change. She lamented the bill’s delay, saying sex work is seen as a moral issue when in fact “it’s a human rights issue”.
SWEAT is aiming to get a new bill submitted to Parliament by March 2024, before the elections. The bill, if passed, will achieve three things: (1) The removal of criminal charges against sex workers. (2) That the buying and selling of sex will no longer be illegal. (3) All laws that criminalise sex work will be repealed.
One panel discussed decriminalisation and youth activism. Pam Ntshekula of SWEAT described using social media platforms such as instagram and Tiktok to advocate for sex workers’ rights. She says they are using these to show young people that sex workers are normal people. Liyema Somnono, a paralegal, talked about the need for HIV prevention services for sex workers. Somnono said the nature of sex work makes people vulnerable to HIV and structural barriers preventing people from accessing health services need to be addressed.
It’s not that sex workers don’t know what is available to us, but because we are stigmatised when we try to access these services, we stop going. -Liyema Somnono
An online session was also held with sex work activists from Kenya, Brazil, and New Zealand. Josephine Achieng, Deputy Director of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support for Sex Workers (BHESP) in Kenya, said sex work would be much safer if it wasn’t illegal.
Yasmin Benoit holds an asexual flag in this undated photograph. Yasmin Benoit/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
Britain's first report into the lives of asexual people has triggered a national conversation about the difficulties they have in coming out at work and raised the question of whether they should be legally protected. The research, carried out by Stonewall and asexual activist Yasmin Benoit, calls for the orientation to be specifically named in legislation aimed at protecting LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.
There are 28,000 people in England and Wales who identify as asexual, according to the 2021 census, published in January this year. Asexual people are vulnerable to conversion therapy practices, experience difficulties in accessing healthcare and are likely to be discriminated against when they come out in a work environment, Stonewall's report said.
Asexuality currently remains pathologised under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, meaning asexual people are at risk of being directed towards medical intervention if they consult their doctor or GP.
Conversion therapy usually starts off coming from GPs; it often comes from gynaecology and particularly smear tests, and the lack of provisions for people who haven't had penetrative sex before. That process can often lead to the medicalisation of [asexual people's] experience. -Yasmin Benoit
While asexuality does not face the same criminalisation risks as same-sex relations or gender transitioning, the orientation can fall victim to loopholes in legislation intended to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community. In Britain, asexuality is not regarded as a sexual orientation under the 2010 Equality Act, which only refers to heterosexual or same-sex attraction. Asexual people were also not included in the government's plans for a conversion therapy ban. New York became the first area in the world to specifically protect asexual people in 2003, when it included the orientation in its Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
We know from our research that asexual people often face harassment and discrimination because of who they are and are often excluded in discussions on LGBTQ+ rights. There are widespread societal misconceptions of what it means to be asexual and the issues they face, including a lack of explicit protections. -Robbie de Santos, Stonewall's director of communications
Alicia Hanton walks the runway for Yolonda Skelton during the opening night of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week in Vancouver, on Nov. 21. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Backstage at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.Joleen Mitton the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week and co-founder of Supernaturals — a Canadian Indigenous modelling agency, is Cree from the Sawridge First Nation in Alberta and has been a model herself for nearly 20 years.
Mitton first met Alicia Hanton when she was a teenager. Besides noticing her model looks, Mitton learned Hanton was in foster care and saw fashion as a way to connect her with culture. For Hanton this connection stuck after she started modelling for Mitton.
It [culture] was very scarce in my life, so I really held on to it. [Modelling] opened my eyes a lot to Indigenous fashion and what it was capable of. -Alicia Hanton
Last week was the fourth Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week Hanton has walked in. This year’s is the biggest show to date. Over four days, 40 models showed off the designs of 32 Indigenous artists, giving a special nod to Canada’s North with 15 artists and designers from the Northwest Territories.
Another model, 19-year-old Taigan Alfred, is Kwakwaka’wakw from Alert Bay about 300 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, and Cree from Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta. He caught the eye of Mitton when he volunteered to work security for one of her shows. Alfred said being a model and being First Nations aren’t separate for him and he loves representing his culture on stage or in front of a camera. He said it has taught him about parts of his culture he hasn’t always been connected to.
If I wasn’t Indigenous, it would be a different industry. I feel like I wouldn’t have the same family that I have. -Taigan Alfred
Mitton said they hope to bring Alfred and Hanton when VIFW goes international in the new years to shows in Italy, Paris, and New York. VIFW, Mitton said, is just the start of what they can accomplish — and she’s seen a lot of personal and professional growth since she met them.
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.