‘Precarious yet hopeful’: LGBT activism in MENA

Organised by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, the NEDWA conference focuses on gender and sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

<p>Fatima, a human rights worker based at a centre that works with sex workers on HIV prevention, takes the hand of project worker Bouchra.</p>

The Alliance was at the conference and Katarzyna Lalak, MENA programmes advisor, says it has provided the organisation with a clearer picture of human rights and HIV programming for men who have sex with men (MSM) and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) in the region – a situation she described as “both encouraging and alarming”.

“The picture is incredibly mixed. On the one hand, there is a lot of hope. We have been working in the region for 12 years but through NEDWA we were able to connect with many more MSM and LGBT activists, and from countries such as Jordan, Sudan and Iraq where we have not worked before. I was surprised and delighted to hear about some of the incredibly brave, underground work that is already happening there.

“Recent decisions taken by Tunisia to ban anal testing and by Saudi Arabia to give women the right to drive were held up at the conference as real signs of regional progress on rights relating to gender and sexuality.

“On the other hand, you can see how precarious the human rights situation is there. During the conference, a huge crackdown on LGBT people began in Egypt, sparked by the waving of rainbow flags at a concert. There are many steps forward and many steps back. It’s a constant struggle.”

Moving towards effective MSM programming

In November, the Alliance will hold a pioneering technical programming workshop for NGOs and National AIDS Programme Managers from Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. It will be facilitated by Alliance partners Soins Infirmiers et de Développement Communautaire (SIDC) from Lebanon and Association Tunisienne de Lutte contre les MST/SIDA (ATL) from Tunisia, in collaboration with UNAIDS’ Regional Support Team, and Katarzyna says the connections made at NEDWA will be invaluable for informing this process.

“The workshop is one of the first steps to supporting effective HIV programming in these countries for men who have sex with men, and people who are gay or transgender. At NEDWA I was able to hear the opinion from the ground and find out from activists what they want to raise with these key players.

“For instance, I heard how a lack of data is holding work back and how, in one country, condoms can only be collected when testing for HIV, but as people can only test every three months they can’t access enough condoms to stay safe. Things like this will help us set the agenda for the workshop.”

Making connections, sharing insights

The Alliance shared key insights and resources from working in MENA at the conference and profiled its REAct tool, a human rights-violations monitoring system, which is used in the Alliance’s Rights to Equality MENA Programme.

The Alliance also discussed its Rapid Response Fund, which provides grants to respond to new or worsening situations that impact HIV services for MSM and LGBT people. Although the Fund is not currently available in MENA, Katarzyna said the shadow cast over the conference by the situation in Egypt, coupled with the enthusiasm shown by activists to gather evidence to support the Fund’s introduction, highlights the important role it could play there.

“What is happening in MENA is incredible, but there is so much potential to do more,” says Katarzyna. “A lot of this work is under the radar. It’s a very precarious situation and these activists and organisations have to be careful about how they operate, but NEDWA gave them the opportunity to connect safely with others doing similar work. A lot can come from these connections.”

Click here for a summary of the Alliance’s key MENA resources. For more information on NEDWA visit afemena.org/nedwa.

Read more about the Alliance’s approach to the HIV prevention, treatment and care continuum and our human rights approach.