• CIVIL SOCIETY: ‘Music can be an entry point because it’s the last thing someone could take away from you’

    Darcy AtamanCIVICUS speaks with Darcy Ataman,founder and CEO of Make Music Matter, a civil society organisation based in Canada that uses the creative process as a therapeutic tool to help empower excluded groups and people.

    Music isn’t necessarily the first thing people associate with civil society work. How do you use music as part of your work?

    We use music for two main purposes. One is the healing of trauma, and particularly of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The second is to create opportunities or vectors for advocacy. We do all this through our Healing in Harmony music therapy programme.

    We work with groups, usually of 10 to 25 people. Working as a group brings safety, especially when you’re in the creative process of singing and writing. But we don’t work with groups so large that participation gets diluted and ceases to be effective.

    We always recruit participants through local partnerships. All operational staff are local and Indigenous, wherever we work. And programmes are set up to fit into a larger care model. For example, our flagship site is at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Patients come to us from the hospital: women who come in for surgery get their physical healing and then get referred to us for mental, psychological and spiritual healing before going back to their villages.

    In eastern DRC there are lots of survivors of sexual violence, due to way sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war there. But trauma can come in a multitude of ways and our results are always the same.

    What we do is build little recording studios wherever we operate and insert our programme into a larger holistic care model. People come in twice a week. They work for about an hour with a local music producer in tandem with a local therapist.

    It’s a four-month cycle: for the first three months they go through the creative process of writing and recording an album, just like any other artist. While that is happening, we interject cognitive behavioural therapy in a way that’s not particularly noticeable.

    So people don’t come in thinking they are coming for a therapy appointment, which has a lot of stigma; they come in to do art in a fun setting.

    That is why our attrition rates are almost nil. We’ve had at least 11,000 people go through the programme globally and you could count with one hand the amount of people who didn’t finish – and that was typically because they got a good economic opportunity.

    We analyse the music that comes out of this process. A lot of experiences people have gone through are so overwhelming that talking about them directly would retraumatise and retrigger the brain. But through lyric writing and metaphor and music, it gets out of people’s heads in a way that doesn’t cause retraumatisation. And once it’s out of their head and articulated in one form or another, we can set a treatment pathway.

    How did you get started?

    Our origins were organic. While I have a psychology degree, professionally I started as a music producer. In 2009 I was in Rwanda for five weeks filming a documentary and recording an album. We had one day off and decided to give local kids a fun day of recording, so we took some equipment to this little school in a village three hours away in the hillsides. When we got there, we learned the entire village had been waiting for us for hours. The schoolroom was packed. There were kids literally crawling through the windows trying to get in. These were kids 12 to 15 or 16 years old, dressed in homemade hip-hop outfits. They knew the lyrics of all the latest rap songs, even though they didn’t have electricity at home.

    They handed us the lyrics of the songs they had written for us to record, and it was all very heavy subject matter: about HIV/AIDS and what it does to communities, about they not wanting to sell their bodies to live another day, about their desire to go to school. There was not one frivolous song in there. We had given them no direction. We didn’t tell them what to write. This was simply what was on their minds, and we realised that for them music was an acceptable way to talk about taboo issues they couldn’t normally talk about.

    I had the realisation that something special was happening and thought this was what I, as a professional producer, could do to help. And it was something that nobody else was doing.

    How effective is the programme, and what do you think explains this?

    We monitor and evaluate our programme very closely. We quantify everything. We analyse our impact on variables from school enrolment and permanence to adherence to drug recovery programmes. A year or two ago our first peer-reviewed study was published. It was terrifying, because we couldn’t ethically keep going if we found we were not achieving results. But the results showed that this was very much like a magic pill: it really worked better than anything else.

    I think effectiveness lies in the programme’s insertion into a larger model. We want to be the last missing psychosocial piece. We don’t want to set people up for failure. For instance, we have another site in rural DRC that started in 2016 and even though we had the funding – we even constructed our own buildings for the studio – we paused and waited until our partners’ microfinancing programme was operational because we didn’t want to heal people psychologically, pump them up and then have them fail due to lack of opportunity to be financially independent. So we have these checklists we do before we start operating.

    Our outcome is the healing, and our output is the music. We lead with music: it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s our passion. But behind the scenes is a very serious therapeutic intervention. We use music almost as a trick that attracts people and retains them. And in the meantime, we do other things, so at the end of each four-month cycle there’s an album done by this group.

    The music they help create with the local producer comes back to us for mixing and mastering. We have a team of about 100 engineers from all over the world who do this as volunteers. And the music gets sent back to the community and disseminated in whatever ways the local community consumes music, be it AM radio, MP3 players or CDs. We also release the music globally on digital platforms.

    People own the rights to all their music so they can get royalties. And it helps in terms of advocacy because this is how they tell their stories directly to the world. This gives power back to people on the ground and also helps rebuild their sense of self-worth. The final piece of that four-month cycle is a community concert where they perform the songs they have written.

    For participants, it is a sort of symbolic graduation, and it also brings communities back together. Survivors of sexual violence who’ve been stigmatised or kicked out of their homes or villages now go on stage in front of a lot of people – we easily get over 1,000 people per show. They sing a song they wrote about their story. Shame is gone, agency is back. Owning your story changes the way the community sees you. I’ve seen husbands who kicked their wives out ask them back and wives say no and laugh at them. I’ve seen mothers of children born of rape start to take care of them for their first time, breaking the cycle.

    Do you work exclusively in places where there’s collective trauma from war? Is your focus on violence against women, or do you also work with other target groups?

    Our data demonstrates that our results are equal across the board, no matter what culture or context or reasons for trauma. We have six sites in the DRC, but we also work in Guinea, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa, Turkey and Uganda, and we’re just starting to work in Canada.

    The idea started in Rwanda, where we worked with the trauma caused by HIV/AIDS, orphaned children and obviously the genocide. Our work took off in the DRC, where participants were primarily survivors of sexual violence, but also with former child soldiers and former sex slaves. In Peru we work with Venezuelan refugees, mostly young kids. In Turkey we work with Syrian refugees who not only have mental trauma from the war but also have physical injuries and disabilities on top of the stigma of being refugees. And in Canada we will be working with Indigenous communities; this work involves a lot of generational trauma that gets passed down.

    The most decisive criterion is whether the community wants us there. We do not parachute in or force ourselves in. We start with community sensitisation aimed at the community taking ownership. We wait for them to ask us to come in, otherwise it just doesn’t work. There needs to be community ownership, because if it is just about the funding or the opportunities you are bringing to an impoverished community, on the first bad day you are going to lose them.

    One of our sites in rural DRC is literally triangulated by three rebel groups. Sadly, this village gets attacked regularly. But we’ve been there since 2016 and haven’t lost a single cable. No one has ever touched the studio. In fact, quite miraculously we haven’t lost anything from any of our sites. Community partnerships really work.

    Do you have any advice to give to other civil society groups about the value of incorporating art into their work?

    Music plays a bigger role than you can imagine, simply because it’s the last thing someone could take away from you. If you’re in an active conflict zone, or you live in extreme poverty, or your community has shunned you, or you are in the hospital after being raped, you may have nothing, but you still have your ability to express yourself through art and music. It doesn’t require any equipment and it doesn’t cost anything: you only need to write some lyrics and a melody in your head to express what you feel.

    I’ve spent a lot of time in some awful places, and it may sound silly but it’s true: music is the last thing people hold on to get up in the morning. It’s the one thing people hold on to no matter what. That makes it an entry point to so much work that civil society can do.

    When I first started with this idea, I was ignored, I was laughed at, I was told point-blank that this was never going to work. But third-party, peer-reviewed research has proved that this works for healing trauma. It works better than literally anything else on offer. It is always hard when you come up with an original idea, but you should persevere.

    Get in touch with Make Music Matter through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@mmm_org on Twitter.


  • CSW66: ‘UN member states should make efforts to honour their commitments at home’

    Eucharia AbuaCIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Eucharia Abua, Senior Programme Officer on Gender and Reproductive Justice at African Girls Empowerment Network (AGE Network).

    Founded in 2015, AGE Network is a young feminist civil society organisation (CSO) committed to advancing gender equality in girls’ education and promoting young women’s bodily and economic rights and leadership in Nigeria. It works to end child marriage and keep girls in school, and provides support to rape survivors, teenage mothers, victims of domestic violence and female genital mutilation, LGBTQI+ women, sex workers, women and girl refugees from Cameroon, internally displaced women and girls, and other economically disadvantaged and vulnerable women and girls.

    What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Nigeria, and how does AGE Network work to address them?

    One of the main issues is women’s right to pregnancy by choice. In Nigeria, there’s an imbalance in the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescent girls. This is evident in the country’s discriminatory abortion law, which only allows medical abortion under certain circumstances. This strict law, alongside shame, social stigma and a lack of access to timely and non-judgemental information about safe, self-managed medical abortion and legal support, steers young women towards unsafe abortions.

    Many young women with unintended pregnancies, particularly those in vulnerable settings and displaced communities who are pregnant as a result of sexual violence, rape or incest, and those with critical medical conditions who cannot carry a pregnancy to term, seek unsafe abortions from quack doctors in hideouts and become vulnerable to irreparable harm or death. This has contributed to the current maternal mortality ratio of 512 per 100,000 live births, according to a 2020 report by the Federal Ministry of Health.

    To address this situation, AGE launched the #BellebyChoice campaign, an initiative to advance women’s and girls’ bodily rights and autonomy by securing their rights to pregnancy by choice, not by chance. The campaign seeks to curb unintended pregnancies by improving access to and uptake of family planning and modern contraception and end unsafe abortions through the provision of timely and non-judgemental information and legal support so that women can access safe and self-managed medical abortions. We have a dedicated hotline and use local and pidgin languages to address communication barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health services among women and adolescent girls.

    Additionally, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, AGE has stood in solidarity with vulnerable young women, including female sex workers, and has helped them access timely sexual and reproductive health services. We partnered with Women First Digital and incorporated their AllyChatBot for safe abortion via WhatsApp into our campaign. So far they have supported our efforts to end abortion stigma and help young women access non-judgemental sexual and reproductive health information and care through their mobile phones.

    In the face of COVID-19, we have also advocated with the Nigerian government to relax the discriminatory abortion law. We have campaigned and engaged with key stakeholders to call on the government to set aside laws and policies that restrict access to safe abortion and allow the use of telemedicine and self-managed abortions in line with the guidelines put forward by the World Health Organization.

    Why do you think the Nigerian government is not sufficiently responsive to women’s rights demands? 

    Here is where another major women’s rights issue comes in: there’s a great imbalance in female representation and too many obstacles prevent women from having effective political participation. Inclusive governance is still a pending issue in Nigeria, and it continues to face strong resistance. For instance, just this March, Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives rejected proposed bills to grant additional legislative seats to women and other forms of affirmative action.

    This is also apparent in the area of climate justice and environmental protection: rural women form the majority among farmers, but they have not been fully integrated or carried along in the process to develop the national climate change mitigation and adaptation action plan.

    What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

    This year AGE has called for climate justice, in the form of a more inclusive climate change mitigation and adaptation action plan. This was the official theme for International Women’s Day 2022 (IWD 2022), to which the priority theme for the CSW’s 66th edition (CSW66) was closely aligned.

    We carried out an online campaign, joined our civil society partners’ side events at CSW66 and hosted a virtual summit to commemorate IWD2022, in which we reflected on climate change and its disproportionate impact on women and girls, reviewed the progress made so far in mitigating climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa, celebrated women’s achievements, raised awareness of gender bias, engaged leading feminists working on climate justice and environmental protection in both government and the private sector in discussion and called for investment in Nigeria’s renewable energy sector.

    Against all odds, women in Nigeria have played a key role in addressing the impacts of climate change and advancing climate justice. However, in spite of their contributions, women and girls – and particularly those in vulnerable settings and displaced communities – are still being disproportionately affected by the lack of climate action.

    What were your expectations of CSW and to what degree have they been met?

    Our expectations were to be able to connect, collaborate with and learn from women’s rights organisations and activists from around the world, joining together in a unified call for climate justice.

    We re-echoed the achievements and contributions of our women, reviewed the reality and impacts of climate change on women, and called for a more level playing field and gender-responsive climate change mitigation and adaptation for a sustainable future for all.

    But we were unable to participate fully due to internet connection problems and time zone differences during most of the events.

    Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women into their decision-making processes?

    As the leading international body, the UN has created an enabling environment for women’s participation in leadership and decision making and inclusive governance, including through Sustainable Development Goal number 5 on gender equality. However, UN member states should match this with efforts to honour their commitments at home, reducing gender inequalities, tackling human rights violations, and upholding the rule of law.

    Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the African Girls Empowerment Network through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@TheAGENetwork on Twitter.


  • DIGITAL DIVIDE: ‘The uncritical adoption of technology is particularly risky in humanitarian crises’

    CIVICUS speaks to Barnaby Willitts-King, Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Established in 1960 and currently working in 50 countries around the world, ODI is a global non-partisan, non-profit and evidence-driven think tank. Barnaby’s latest research with ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) focuses on the effects of the adoption of information and communications technologies in the humanitarian sector.

    BarnabyWillitts King DIGITAL

    Which would you say have been the biggest humanitarian crises of 2019, and how effective and efficient has the humanitarian response been?

    The crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Yemen have affected the most people in 2019 and look set to continue through 2020. In the majority of these crises, and the many more affecting over 160 million people, there are major funding challenges and problems of access to people in need due to conflict. Despite these challenges, international humanitarian assistance from the United Nations (UN), the Red Cross movement and civil society organisations (CSOs) supported 64 per cent of those it was aiming to reach in 2019 and is reaching more people than ever before.

    However, huge challenges remain to reforming the international system of humanitarian action to make it more effective, efficient and appropriate, while confronting the largely political blockages to solving the underlying causes of such crises. The space for neutral humanitarian action remains under pressure from increasingly polarised geopolitics and a retreat from multilateralism.

    Concerns about national security, migration and terrorism have led donors belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) to introduce laws and policies that have had significant knock-on consequences for the ability of CSOs to support people in crisis. Such was the case with UK legislation, subsequently amended, which would have criminalised aid workers in some conflict zones.

    What have you learned from your research about resource flows to countries affected by humanitarian crises?

    There is a mismatch between the global picture of humanitarian response and funding flows from major DAC donors, and what is visible in countries and communities affected by crisis. The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit launched the Grand Bargain initiative, an agreement between donors and agencies that included a commitment to increase the flow of resources to local and national humanitarian actors. However, the flow of resources to such local actors still remains far below the 25 per cent target , as seen for instance in evidence from Somalia and South Sudan.

    Beyond resource flows to local organisations and administrations, HPG’s recent research based on field studies in Iraq, Nepal and Uganda on the resources that households use to cope with crisis has revealed the narrow way in which humanitarian agencies have been looking at resource flows.

    This shows that the international community undervalues the role of locally led response, which starts in affected communities, and the resources they mobilise and make use of, including community support mechanisms, remittances from the diaspora, government and private sector funding and faith-based giving. These funds and other resources are not easily measured or tracked and are not sufficiently understood by local and international humanitarian actors.

    Globally, this study estimated that international humanitarian assistance comprises as little as one per cent of the total resource flows to countries affected by humanitarian crises. Remittances are one clear example of a major resource flow that is potentially significant in crises but insufficiently understood or factored in; others include faith-based flows and local community resources.

    What should the international community do to put the affected countries and local communities at the centre of the planning and funding of responses?

    There are many things that the humanitarian community needs to do in order to achieve this reorientation of international humanitarian assistance. First, it should focus on the household perspective in resource analysis and tracking by investing in household economy, market and political economy analysis. Second, it should design programming specifically for each crisis. Third, it should use aid smartly to focus on gaps and catalyse the right kind of investments and flows – for example, through supporting entrepreneurship or facilitating remittances. Fourth, it should develop better humanitarian needs assessments that incorporate livelihoods and political analysis and involve government. Fifth, it should strengthen data literacy and data. Sixth, it should build a community of practice on tracking the wide range of resources in crises, from private flows to humanitarian, peace and development funding.

    This shift in perspective is critical to better reflect local agency and a more diverse set of resources that people in crisis rely on. Aid should be used not just to respond to gaps in need but to catalyse better and more effective use of flows beyond aid, which may be the best way to ‘localise’ the response.

     Your latest research focuses on the effects of the rapid adoption of digital technologies in the humanitarian sector. What problems has technology helped to solve, and what new challenges has it created?

    Digital approaches are certainly transforming humanitarian action in a number of ways, and there are examples of them making aid more effective, efficient and transparent: for instance, in collecting and analysing data, such as using drones to map disaster sites, volunteer ‘crowdmappers’ to process the data and machine learning to analyse large and complex datasets to improve targeting. Humanitarian programming can be streamlined through the seamless and secure transfer of digital payments to recipients or by using biometric verification of aid recipients for efficiency and security. Technology also connects and gives agency to affected people – for example through apps enabling them to contact first responders directly, or for aid recipients to give feedback to aid agencies and for volunteer networks to fundraise on social media with crowdfunders.

    However, there are increasing concerns about the dominance of technology in development and humanitarian assistance, and the risks such technologies can present in situations of armed conflict. The uncritical adoption of the latest technology fad is increasingly seen as particularly risky in humanitarian crises where more traditional methods of aid distribution may still make more sense. The vulnerability of people’s data when it is being generated in ever greater quantities is of paramount concern where people are in situations of conflict, with risks they could be targeted by hostile governments.

    Do you think that the use of technology has led to more inclusive and participatory processes? If not, what should be done so that technology lives up to its full potential?

    Inclusion is an important goal for the humanitarian sector, but it has proved difficult to achieve in practice, as we explore in our research. The careful adaptation of existing tools has indeed been used to increase coverage and inclusion – for instance by enabling participatory mapping of communities by residents of informal settlements, training drone pilots pilots in affected countries and using messaging applications to disseminate to displaced people. However, these benefits are still too often assumed as a natural consequence of adopting technology-based approaches. In reality, differences in the access to and the use of technology, often along gender, income or racial lines, constitute a ‘digital divide’. This means that the benefits of these approaches are not evenly distributed and leave many excluded.

    Inclusion is also limited by in-built biases in many applied technologies – for instance facial recognition software, whose ‘coded gaze’ has not been taught to recognise diverse datasets of faces, or automated mapping technologies that lack the contextual understanding to recognise houses in disaster-affected areas.

    The uncritical adoption of technologies in crises may reinforce the ingrained power dynamics of the sector or violate humanitarian principles, either through a shift to digital registration that unintentionally excludes those most in need, or humanitarian independence being compromised through partnerships with the private sector, including the surveillance and security industry.

    Instead, these new tools will require active correction and contextual knowledge to be adapted to particular humanitarian crises, in order to include and protect the people humanitarian assistance is intended to serve. In some cases, tools such as biometric registration or mapping of improvised settlements may not be appropriate, with poor data protection practices presenting unacceptable risks to populations made vulnerable by persecution, conflict, or displacement.

    Get in touch with ODI through its website and Facebook page, or follow @hpg_odion Twitter.


  • MALAYSIA: ‘Young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers

    rsz xrecorder edited 26112022 165837

    CIVICUS speaks with Tharma Pillai, co-founder and Advocacy Director of Undi18.

    A youth civil society organisation (CSO) born out of the student movement, Undi18 successfully advocated for the amendment of article 119(1) of Malaysia’s Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age, allowing people over 18 to vote in the 19 November 2022 election.

    How did Undi18 start and what was your objective?

    In 2016, my co-founder and I were both studying in the USA and that year’s election inspired us. I came from a sciences and technology background, where most people don’t really care about these things. But seeing democracy in action and our US classmates engage with the electoral process made us reflect on our inability to vote in our home country, Malaysia. It was quite interesting that because they had the right to vote, they felt the responsibility of helping choose the best possible leader for their country.

    We started thinking of ways to replicate these practices and bring this kind of energy into Malaysian university campuses. It was only natural for us to focus on the right to vote because voting age in Malaysia was 21, which meant that a high proportion of college students were ineligible to vote. This did not happen in the USA, where the minimum voting age is 18. By 2016, some of our US classmates were voting for the second time in their lives, while I had never yet had the chance. We thought that would have to change 

    When we did our research, we realised that our demand was not radical at all, and in fact it was long overdue. We were one of only eight countries in the entire world with a minimum voting age as high as 21. We launched Undi18 – which means ‘Vote18’ – as soon as we came back to Malaysia. Our single focus was on the amendment of article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

    What tactics did you use to campaign for change?

    To make sure we had a stronger voice, in the first year we ran a digital advocacy campaign, something unheard of in Malaysia, where most civil society work and campaigning take place very much on the ground. We came into existence as a hashtag movement in February 2017.

    At the time we were not registered as a CSO. We didn’t have funding. Our team was very small. The campaign was our passion project. But due to effective digital mobilisation, it looked like we had so many supporters. That prompted the media to pick up on our story. We were always willing to work with people of all political leanings.

    Many Malaysian CSOs tend to side squarely with the opposition because for a long time our country had one-party rule. We of course worked with the opposition, but we also engaged with other parties. That also made us open to engaging with whoever criticised our movement and addressing any grievances directly.

    In addition to the digital campaign, we started off a petition and a memorandum to the prime minister. Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the government. We knocked on many doors and talked to many people, but the government viewed young people as inclined to vote for the opposition, so they disliked the idea of lowering the voting age for reasons of political calculation. But we gained traction with the opposition, which raised the issue in their manifesto. This gave us a lot of leverage when the opposition eventually came to power in 2018. They had promised to deliver change on this issue.

    How did you engage with the parliamentary process?

    As soon as the new government was inaugurated, we tried to convince them to introduce an amendment bill, but there were challenges. No constitutional amendment had ever been passed in Malaysia by a government without a parliamentary supermajority of two thirds, and this new government only had a simple majority. It took a year for the government to finally greenlight the

    But not having a supermajority, the government needed to negotiate with the opposition. We did our best to engage with political parties across the spectrum, especially those in the opposition, to convince them that this was not a partisan initiative and all could benefit, them included. We pleaded with them to support the bill for the sake of young people, democracy and Malaysia’s future. Luckily, the then-Minister of Youth and Sports was a very strong ally of ours and helped us navigate these obstacles.

    Thanks to these efforts, in July 2019 this became the first constitutional amendment in Malaysia’s history to pass with 100 per cent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament.

    Were there any implementation challenges?

    There were postponements and delays. The agreement with the opposition was that the law would be implemented within two years. The two-year timeline was unusual, but necessary due to the technical difficulties entailed by the new automatic voter registration system.

    Repeated promises were made that this would be done by July 2021.But another change of government slowed things down, as the new government thought young voters would vote against it. In March 2021, it announced implementation would be postponed until September 2022 at the earliest, but it didn’t provide a clear date.

    We campaigned against this postponement and held protests across Malaysia, which grew to include larger issues fuelling public anger, including the economic situation, the shutdown of parliament and the poor management of the COVID-19 health crisis. We also sued the government. We filed a judicial review against the prime minister, the Election Commission and the government of Malaysia for postponing the implementation of the UNDI18 Bill beyond the due date. The High Court decided in our favour and ordered the federal government to implement the bill by 31 December 2021. Due to public pressure that was sustained thanks to the protests, the government decided against appealing the verdict and complied. As a result, the bill was finally implemented on 15 December 2021, and when the updated voter rolls were published one month later an additional 5.8 million voters had been included in the system and 18-year-olds could officially vote in the next election.

    What were the main elements of the amendment?

    The amendment had three components. First, it lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Second, it also lowered the minimum running age to 18, meaning you could become an elected member of parliament at that age. And third, it established automatic voter registration for anyone turning 18.

    The 2022 elections were the first in which people between 18 and 21 cast their ballots. An additional 5.8 million new voters were added to the electoral roll issued in January 2022. Malaysia being a country of 33 million, this was quite a number.

    In Malaysia, ‘young voters’ are defined as those between 18 to 40 years old. After the changes, they account for 51 per cent of the electoral roll, up from 40 per cent. This means young people could make change happen. Malaysian politics are dominated by old people. At one point we had the oldest prime minister in the world – a 93-year-old man. Now for the first time, young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers. This is why youth turnout is a key element to watch when analysing the results of this election.

    Change started happening even before the polls opened. In the run-up to the election, many senior leaders were replaced with younger candidates in order to appeal to young voters. Overall, the number of young and new candidates increased. And all parties had more youth-centric manifestos, addressing some of the concerns expressed by young people, such as corruption, climate change, the state of the economy and healthcare.

    What more needs to be done to make policymaking more inclusive of younger people?

    I think Malaysia needs political rejuvenation, and that can be done through education. Our society gives too much power to older people, who of course don’t want to let go of it, whether it’s in government, civil society, politics, or business. To change things, you must train young leaders – but nobody is doing this kind of work. At Undi18 we are doing our best to fill that gap so that young people can take up the space, gain power and get ready to be the country’s next leaders.

    We strongly believe that informed voters are integral to democratic success, so we have been working with the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to advance educational programmes to address this issue systemically. We want educational curricula to emphasise democracy so the democratisation process beginsin schools. Some topics such as constitutional rights, human rights and the functions of the parliament are already in the syllabus, but they’re not emphasised enough.

    We also have our own programmes. We run outreach campaigns on social media platforms. We are quite active there as most of our target audience is there. We also run outreach programmes in schools and universities to educate students about their rights. And we have corporate, civil society, government and international partners to ensure we reach as many people as possible.

    Civic space in Malaysia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Undi18 through its website and follow @UNDI18MY and @TharmaPillai on Twitter.


  • NACIONES UNIDAS: “El poder de los grupos antiderechos va en aumento; nos esperan tiempos difíciles”

    CIVICUS conversa con Tamara Adrián, fundadora y directora de DIVERLEX-Diversidad e Igualdad a Través de la Ley, acerca de la exitosa campaña de la sociedad civil por la renovación del mandato de la persona experta independiente de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) sobre orientación sexual e identidad de género.

    Tamara Adrián es abogada y profesora universitaria, y la primera mujer trans que fue electa a un parlamento nacional en América Latina.

    DIVERLEX es una organización de la sociedad civil venezolana dedicada a la investigación, la formación, la incidencia y el litigio estratégico en materia de diversidad sexual. A causa de la crisis humanitaria compleja que afecta a Venezuela, casi todos sus dirigentes se encuentran actualmente fuera de Venezuela, donde siguen trabajando para mejorar las condiciones de vida de las personas LGBTQI+ en el exilio.

    Tamara Adrian

    ¿Por qué es tan importante el mandato del Experto Independiente de la ONU sobre orientación sexual e identidad de género?

    Esta es una figura sumamente importante. El arma preferida de todas las intolerancias es la invisibilización de ciertos grupos y de las violaciones de sus derechos. Esta ha sido la constante en relación con las mujeres, los pueblos indígenas, las minorías raciales y las minorías religiosas. Mientras los intolerantes puedan decir que el problema no existe, su sistema de poder permanece activo y las cosas no cambian. En el sistema universal de derechos humanos, la visibilidad de lo que los intolerantes quieren mantener invisible se logra mediante el trabajo de personas expertas y relatores independientes.

    El primer Experto Independiente, Vitit Muntarbhorn, estuvo en el cargo por un par de años y produjo un informe sobre la violencia por causa de la orientación sexual o la identidad de género, que compartió con la oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos. Inició el proceso de visibilizar las injusticias, inequidades y violencias contra las personas LGBTQI+ a nivel global.

    Los tres informes del actual experto independiente, Víctor Madrigal-Borloz, pusieron el dedo en la llaga de muchos países que incumplen en su deber de protección de todos sus ciudadanos y ciudadanas. La propia oficina del Alto Comisionado para los Derechos Humanos puso énfasis en el deber positivo de los Estados de asegurar los mismos derechos a todas las personas.

    Entendemos que aún falta mucho y que los informes –del Experto Independiente, el Alto Comisionado y organismos regionales como la Organización de Estados Americanos – son importantes para este proceso.

    Tan importantes son, que este trabajo generó una fuerte reacción por parte de grupos fundamentalistas que se reorganizaron bajo el formato de “organizaciones no gubernamentales” que buscaron obtener estatus consultivo ante el Consejo Económico y Social de las Naciones Unidas, para poder interferir en sus procesos.

    ¿Cómo operan estos grupos dentro de las Naciones Unidas?

    Los grupos antiderechos han ido cambiando de estrategia. Más que como organizaciones religiosas, han buscado presentarse como defensoras de la libertad religiosa y, sobre todo, de la libertad de expresión. Han impulsado estrategias de unión en el ámbito religioso, reuniendo a fundamentalistas católicos y a representantes de la Santa Sede con fundamentalistas neo-evangélicos y con los grupos musulmanes más retrógrados.

    También han refinado sus argumentos. En primer lugar, sostienen que el concepto de orientación sexual e identidad de género es un concepto occidental y no universal, por lo que no puede ser protegido por la ONU. En segundo lugar, que no hay ningún tratado ni instrumento internacional que proteja contra la discriminación por orientación sexual o identidad de género. En tercer lugar, que los países con valores tradicionales deben poder mantener leyes discriminatorias o criminalizar las relaciones de personas del mismo sexo o las identidades de género diversas.

    En la argumentación de los países que se opusieron a la renovación del mandato del experto independiente o propusieron modificaciones estuvieron implícitos estos tres argumentos, junto con un cuarto: que ningún país puede proteger a criminales, y que la determinación de lo que es un acto criminal queda sujeta al derecho penal de cada país y no es susceptible de verificación ante el sistema internacional de derechos humanos.

    Históricamente este tema se ha resuelto a partir del reconocimiento de que todo el mundo tiene derecho a una creencia, pero nadie puede imponer la suya ni negarles a otras personas sus derechos sobre la base de su fe. Los fundamentalistas pretenden que esta situación se revierta para que los creyentes puedan discriminar y negar derechos a otras personas.

    ¿Ha aumentado en los últimos años el poder de los grupos antiderechos?

    El poder de los grupos antiderechos va en aumento, lo cual posiblemente esté vinculado con la regresión que está ocurriendo en los Estados Unidos. Efectivamente, en la votación para la renovación del mandato hemos visto delineados dos grupos de países que han opuesto resistencia: por un lado, países que nunca han avanzado en el reconocimiento de derechos y en los cuales hay mucha resistencia al cambio, y por el otro, países que están retrocediendo, como los Estados Unidos.

    En Estados Unidos desde hace por lo menos una década se han estrechado los vínculos entre el supremacismo blanco, los grupos neo-pentecostales y los sectores más radicales del Partido Republicano. Los grupos antiderechos han ido ocupando espacios en los tribunales, desde lo más bajo hasta la Corte Suprema, así como en las gobernaciones y las legislaturas estatales, lo que ha resultado en cada vez más sentencias, leyes y políticas anti-trans, anti-educación sexual y a favor de la libertad religiosa. Muy abiertamente han expuesto sus planes para revertir el derecho al aborto, combatir el concepto de género, y rechazar la educación sexual y reproductiva y el derecho a la anticoncepción, e incluso los derechos de las mujeres, el matrimonio igualitario y las protecciones contra la discriminación racial.

    Estados Unidos también tuvo un rol clave en el financiamiento internacional del movimiento antiderechos y en el desarrollo de nuevas iglesias neo-pentecostales alrededor del mundo, y sobre todo en África y América Latina. También ha influido sobre la formación de un fenómeno al que no se le ha prestado suficiente atención: el movimiento de las feministas biologicistas, que niega el concepto de género, con los mismos argumentos que las iglesias más conservadoras.

    Esta comunidad de argumentación es altamente sospechosa, y tanto más cuando se observan las corrientes de financiamiento procedentes de Estados Unidos que alimentan a grupos feministas biologicistas en Brasil, Centroamérica, España, el Reino Unido o República Dominicana. El blanco de estos grupos ya no son las personas LGBTQI+ en general, sino específicamente las personas trans. Al sostener el carácter biológico y natural de las diferencias buscan destruir toda la estructura de protección basada en el género.

    Honestamente creo que es un plan muy bien pensado. Entiendo que imitaron la estrategia que nosotros adoptamos inicialmente para visibilizar nuestra lucha. Sin embargo, ellos tienen la ventaja de haber ocupado el poder. El número de países que han firmado una resolución “pro-vida” en la ONU y que se han declarado “países pro-vida” demuestra que su objetivo ya no es oponerse solamente a los derechos de las personas LGBTQI+ sino a todo derecho basado en el concepto de género.

    ¿Cómo se organizó la campaña por la renovación del mandato del Experto Independiente?

    Las organizaciones que incidimos para que se renovara el mandato hemos actuado juntas desde la campaña para la designación del primer Experto Independiente. Cada vez, el proceso se inicia mucho tiempo antes de la designación. En este caso, lo iniciamos hace unos tres años: prácticamente al año siguiente de la renovación del mandato ya estábamos trabajando para crear el grupo madre para trabajar por una nueva renovación.

    Para las organizaciones de América Latina, una limitante recurrente es el desconocimiento del idioma inglés, que restringe la capacidad del activismo para internacionalizar sus luchas. Para superar este problema, nuestro grupo madre está conformado tanto por activistas que hablan castellano como por activistas que hablan inglés. Esto fue muy importante porque la coalición estuvo formada principalmente por grupos latinoamericanos.

    Fue un proceso muy difícil, y si bien la votación eventualmente resultó favorable, a lo largo de meses los resultados de las sesiones no generaban demasiada confianza. Observamos resistencias crecientes por parte de países con posiciones fundamentalistas, cada día más aferrados a la idea de revertir derechos.

    ¿Cuáles son los próximos pasos tras la renovación del mandato?

    Creo que no debemos relajarnos. Nos esperan tiempos difíciles. Es probable que muchos derechos que considerábamos ganados sean revertidos en los Estados Unidos, incluso los vinculados con la igualdad racial. Ya no se trata ni siquiera de regresar a una visión propia del siglo XX, sino a una correspondiente al siglo XVI o XVII.

    Esto tendrá un fuerte impacto a nivel global, sobre todo en los países que poseen instituciones menos desarrolladas. Probablemente los países con una institucionalidad más fuerte podrán resistir mejor los embates para revertir derechos sexuales y reproductivos. 

    Como pasos a seguir pongo el énfasis en la organización. En muchos lugares la gente me dice “tranquila, eso jamás pasará aquí”, pero insisto, no podemos relajarnos. Debemos enfocarnos en la formación de coaliciones y organizar alianzas más fuertes que permitan detener el avance de los grupos neoconservadores y disputarles espacios de poder.

    Contáctese con Tamara Adrián a través de supágina web o su perfil deFacebook y siga a@TamaraAdrian en Twitter.


  • NATIONS UNIES : « Le pouvoir des groupes anti-droits s’accroît ; des temps difficiles nous attendent »

    CIVICUS échange avec Tamara Adrián, fondatrice et directrice de DIVERLEX-Diversité et égalité par le droit, au sujet de la fructueuse campagne de la société civile pour le renouvellement du mandat de la personne experte indépendante des Nations Unies (ONU) sur l’orientation sexuelle et l’identité de genre.

    Tamara Adrián est avocate et professeure d’université, et la première femme transgenre à être élue dans un parlement national en Amérique latine.

    DIVERLEX est une organisation de la société civile vénézuélienne qui se consacre à la recherche, à la formation, au plaidoyer et aux litiges stratégiques sur la diversité sexuelle. En raison de la crise humanitaire complexe qui touche le Venezuela, la quasi-totalité de ses dirigeants se trouvent actuellement hors du pays, où ils continuent de travailler pour l’amélioration des conditions de vie des personnes LGBTQI+ en exil.

    Tamara Adrian

    Pourquoi le mandat de l’expert indépendant des Nations unies sur l’orientation sexuelle et l’identité de genre est-il si important ?

    Il s’agit d’un mandat extrêmement important. L’arme préférée de toute intolérance est l’invisibilisation de certains groupes et la violation de leurs droits. C’est une constante en ce qui concerne les femmes, les peuples autochtones, les minorités raciales et les minorités religieuses. Tant que les intolérants peuvent dire que le problème n’existe pas, les relations de pouvoir restent penchées en leur faveur et rien ne change. Dans le système universel des droits humains, ce que les intolérants veulent garder invisible ne peut être rendu visible que grâce au travail des experts et des rapporteurs indépendants.

    Le premier expert indépendant, Vitit Muntarbhorn, a été en fonction pendant moins de deux ans et a produit un rapport sur la violence fondée sur l’orientation sexuelle ou l’identité de genre, qu’il a partagé avec le bureau du Haut-Commissariat des Nations Unies aux droits de l’homme. Il a commencé à mettre en évidence les injustices, les inégalités et les violences dont sont victimes les personnes LGBTQI+ dans tout le monde.

    Les trois rapports de l’actuel expert indépendant, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, pointent du doigt de nombreux pays qui manquent à leur devoir de protéger tous leurs citoyens. La Haut-Commissaire aux droits de l’homme elle-même a souligné l’obligation positive des États de garantir l’égalité des droits pour tous et toutes.

    Nous sommes conscients qu’il reste beaucoup à faire et que les rapports - de l’expert indépendant, du Haut-Commissaire et des organismes régionaux tels que l’Organisation des États Américains - sont importants pour ce processus.

    Si importants sont-ils, en effet, que ces travaux ont suscité une forte réaction de la part de groupes fondamentalistes. Ceux-ci se sont réorganisés sous le format d’« organisations non gouvernementales » et ont cherché à obtenir un statut consultatif auprès du Conseil économique et social des Nations Unies pour pouvoir intervenir dans ces processus.

    Comment ces groupes opèrent-ils au sein de l’ONU ?

    Les acteurs anti-droits ont changé de stratégie. Plutôt que de se montrer comme des organisations religieuses, ils ont cherché à se présenter comme des défenseurs de la liberté religieuse et, surtout, de la liberté d’expression. Ils ont promu des stratégies d’unité religieuse, réunissant des fondamentalistes catholiques et des représentants du Saint-Siège avec des fondamentalistes néo-évangéliques et les groupes musulmans les plus rétrogrades.

    Ils ont également affiné leurs arguments. Premièrement, ils affirment que le concept d’orientation sexuelle et d’identité de genre est un concept occidental et non universel, et qu’il ne peut donc pas être protégé par l’ONU. Deuxièmement, ils disent qu’il n’existe aucun traité ni instrument international qui protège contre la discrimination fondée sur l’orientation sexuelle ou l’identité de genre. Troisièmement, ils soutiennent que les pays ayant des valeurs traditionnelles devraient avoir la liberté de préserver leurs lois discriminatoires et criminaliser les relations homosexuelles ou les diverses identités de genre.

    Ces trois arguments ont été implicitement présents dans l’argumentation des pays qui se sont opposés au renouvellement du mandat de l’expert indépendant ou ont proposé des modifications, de même qu’un quatrième, qui soutient qu’aucun pays ne peut protéger des criminels. Selon cette vision, la détermination de ce qui constitue un acte criminel est soumise au droit pénal de chaque pays et non susceptible d’être vérifiée par le système international des droits humains.

    Historiquement, la réponse à ces questions a été fournie par la reconnaissance du fait que chacun a droit à ses propres croyances, et que personne ne peut imposer sa croyance ou priver les autres de leurs droits sur la base de leur foi. Les fondamentalistes cherchent à renverser cette situation afin que les croyants puissent discriminer et refuser des droits aux autres.

    Le pouvoir des acteurs anti-droits a-t-il augmenté ces dernières années ?

    Le pouvoir des acteurs anti-droits est en hausse, ce qui est peut-être lié à la régression qui a lieu aux États-Unis. En effet, lors du vote pour le renouvellement du mandat, nous avons vu deux groupes de pays qui ont résisté : d’une part, les pays qui n’ont jamais avancé dans la reconnaissance des droits et dans lesquels il y a beaucoup de résistance au changement, et d’autre part, les pays qui reculent, comme les États-Unis.

    Aux États-Unis, depuis au moins une décennie, les liens entre le suprémacisme blanc, les groupes néo-pentecôtistes et les secteurs les plus radicaux du parti républicain se sont resserrés. Les groupes anti-droits ont pris de l’espace dans les tribunaux, allant des plus bas à la Cour suprême, ainsi que dans les gouvernorats et les législatures des États, ce qui a donné lieu à de plus en plus de décisions, de lois et de politiques contre les personnes transgenre, l’éducation sexuelle et renforçant la liberté religieuse. Ils n’ont pas caché leur intention de revenir sur le droit à l’avortement, de combattre le concept de genre et de rejeter les droits à l’éducation sexuelle et reproductive et à la contraception, et même les droits des femmes, le mariage pour tous et les protections contre la discrimination raciale.

    Les États-Unis ont également joué un rôle clé dans le financement international du mouvement anti-droits et dans le développement de nouvelles églises néo-pentecôtistes dans le monde, notamment en Afrique et en Amérique latine. Ils ont également influencé la formation d’un phénomène auquel on n’a pas accordé suffisamment d’attention : les courant du féminisme fixés sur la biologie, qui nient le concept de genre avec les mêmes arguments que les églises les plus conservatrices.

    Cette communauté d’argumentation est très suspecte, d’autant plus lorsqu’on observe les flux de financement en provenance des États-Unis qui alimentent ces groupes au Brésil, en Amérique centrale, en Espagne, au Royaume-Uni ou en République dominicaine. Ces groupes ne ciblent plus les personnes LGBTQI+ en général, mais spécifiquement les personnes transgenre. En affirmant le caractère biologique et naturel des différences, ils cherchent à détruire toute la structure de protection fondée sur le genre.

    Honnêtement, il me semble qu’il s’agit d’un plan très réfléchi. Ils ont imité la stratégie que nous avions initialement adoptée pour rendre notre lutte visible, mais ils ont l’avantage d’être au pouvoir. Le nombre de pays qui ont signé une résolution « pro-vie » à l’ONU et se sont déclarés « pays pro-vie » montre que leur objectif n’est plus seulement de s’opposer aux droits des personnes LGBTQI+ mais à tous les droits fondés sur le concept de genre.

    Comment la campagne pour le renouvellement du mandat de l’expert indépendant a-t-elle été organisée ?

    Les organisations qui ont exercé de la pression pour le renouvellement du mandat sont celles qui travaillent ensemble depuis la campagne pour la nomination du premier expert indépendant. Chaque fois, le processus commence longtemps avant la nomination. Cette fois-ci, nous avons commencé il y a environ trois ans : l’année suivant le renouvellement du mandat, nous travaillions déjà à la création d’un groupe central qui travaillerait vers ce nouveau renouvellement.

    Pour les organisations latino-américaines, une limitation récurrente est le manque de connaissance de la langue anglaise, qui restreint la capacité des militants à internationaliser leurs luttes. Pour surmonter ce problème, notre groupe central est composé à la fois de militants hispanophones et de militants anglophones. Cela a été crucial car la coalition était principalement composée de groupes latino-américains.

    Le processus s’est avéré très difficile, et si bien le vote a fini par être favorable, les résultats des sessions au fil des mois ne suscitaient pas une grande confiance. Nous avons constaté une résistance croissante de la part des pays plus fondamentalistes, de plus en plus attachés à l’idée de supprimer des droits.

    Quelles sont les prochaines étapes après le renouvellement du mandat ?

    Je pense que nous ne devrions pas nous détendre. Des temps difficiles nous attendent. De nombreux droits qui semblaient être conquis risquent d’être annulés aux États-Unis, notamment ceux liés à l’égalité raciale. Il ne s’agit même plus de reculer vers une vision du XXe siècle, mais plutôt vers une vision du XVIe ou du XVIIe siècle.

    Cela aura un fort impact au niveau mondial, notamment dans les pays dont les institutions sont moins développées. Les pays dotés d’institutions plus fortes pourront certainement mieux résister aux tentatives de renversement des droits sexuels et reproductifs.

    Pour les prochaines étapes, je pense que les capacités d’organisation seront primordiales. Souvent et dans divers endroits les gens me disent : « ne vous inquiétez pas, cela n’arrivera jamais ici », mais j’insiste sur le fait que nous ne pouvons pas nous détendre. Nous devons nous concentrer sur la construction de coalitions et l’organisation d’alliances plus fortes pour mettre fin à l’avancée des groupes néoconservateurs et reconquérir les espaces de pouvoir qu’ils ont occupé. 

    Contactez Tamara Adrián sur sonsite web ou son profilFacebook et suivez@TamaraAdrian sur Twitter. 


  • SIERRA LEONE: ‘Civil society needs international support to monitor the implementation of the new land laws’

    BernsLebbieCIVICUS speaks with Berns Lebbie, lead campaigner and national coordinator of Land for Life (LfL) in Sierra Leone, about two new laws aimed at improving the ability of communities to protect their land rights and the environment. LfL brings together civil society organisations (CSOs) in four African countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It aims to contribute to the formulation and implementation of policies on land governance and agricultural investment consistent with international standards, and specifically the human right to adequate food.

    What prompted Sierra Leone’s parliament to pass new environmental and land rights legislation?

    Sierra Leone’s parliament has finally debated and passed the Land Commission and Customary Land Rights Bills, which are pending presidential approval. The new laws aim to address the problems of the country’s dual land tenure system. More than 95 per cent of Sierra Leone’s land is under customary rules preventing private ownership. Customary rules are often ambiguous and inconsistent, allowing for arbitrary and discriminatory application.

    The need to rethink the land tenure system came to the forefront following a rush for large-scale land acquisitions for biofuel production between 2010 and 2013. The government was not prepared to handle multinational investment, as existing laws were obsolete. As a result, tensions grew between private sector investors and community land holders, and legal reform became a must.

    The new laws came after years of progress in implementing legal and policy changes advocated for by civil society and the international community. It all started in 2010 as the government became aware of the importance of investment. Through an initiative funded by the United Nations (UN) Development Programme, Sierra Leone had its first version of a national land policy in 2011. Policies then underwent several updates.

    In 2013, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests were introduced in Sierra Leone. This internationally agreed framework guided the review process of Sierra Leone’s policy, which was finalised in 2015 and launched in 2017.

    One of the key policy recommendations to emerge from the review process was that the government should enact new land legislation, so in 2018 consultants were hired to draft model bills. These were drafted with input from national stakeholders, local authorities, traditional chiefs, CSOs and the private sector. Our network participated in the process by producing policy papers representing the views of community landowners and local authorities. We ensured their perspectives became an integral part of the documents that accompanied the model bills.

    Once they were presented to the public, however, the model bills sparked a lot of debate. The National Council of Paramount Chiefs rejected them entirely in a letter to the president. The private sector sent a list of concerns to the Minister of Land, while civil society raised some concerns through a parliamentary brief. In response, the minister engaged separately with each interest group, paving the way for parliament to continue with the reform process.

    How significant is the new legislation?

    Although they are only first steps in a long road to organise and modernise Sierra Leone’s land governance sector, the two laws offer distinct benefits.

    The 2022 National Land Commission Act establishes a land commission that will function as an operational arm of the Ministry of Land, as well as several decentralised level structures. It takes an inclusive, gender-sensitive and participatory approach. As a result of this law, all lands will be titled and registered through a state-run real-time information and cadastral system.

    The 2022 Customary Land Rights Act is aimed at protecting customary land rights, organising and harmonising customary land governance in the provinces. To address the problem of gender-based discrimination, it establishes women’s right to own and use family land on an equal footing with their male relatives.

    Regarding investment processes, the law mandates investors to seek landowners’ free, prior and informed consent. All customary lands must be registered before they can be acquired for investment. The law also seeks to ensure the responsible use of natural resources and protected areas. Citizens now have a 10 per cent minimum share in all large-scale land-based investments. When government sets a floor price for land leases, families still have the right to renegotiate lease fees.

    The law also states that no investment should take place on ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands, swamps, lagoons and protected areas. Under certain conditions, only sustainable development projects approved by the authorities will be able to proceed.

    Any commitment or agreement of private companies with regulatory agencies or funders will automatically form part of their land lease agreements. In this way, the land law will strengthen the enforcement of other laws, such as those on environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

    What’s next for the civil society groups working on land and environmental rights in Sierra Leone?

    Parliament now needs to pass the final reviewed versions of the bills to the president so he can sign them into law. At this stage, civil society plays a key monitoring role to ensure the contents of the bill sent to the president for signature are the ones debated and agreed upon.

    Once the bills are signed, we will take part in their formal launch at a national land conference that we will co-organise with the Ministry of Land. Following that, we will organise a national-level training of trainers targeting CSOs, the media and others. To make the laws accessible to the public, we will produce a simplified compendium. For instance, we will work with telecom agencies to break down the key contents of the laws into text messages. We also plan to launch an app with a search function for easy referencing.

    How can international allies support land rights groups in Sierra Leone?

    Sierra Leonean civil society needs international support to monitor the implementation of the new land laws. First and foremost, we need financial support.

    Our CSO network is currently funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through the German CSO Welthungerhilfe, but that funding is quite limited. Although the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has overseen the reform process, we have not received any funds from them, as all its funding goes directly to the government. It is the same with other UN agencies, the World Bank and other international financial institutions. As there is no hope for Sierra Leonean CSOs to get any funding from them, we really need international civil society to step in.

    Civic space in Sierra Leone is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with LfL Sierra Leone through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@Land4LifeSalone on Twitter.


  • TANZANIA: ‘The new administration is committed to ending discriminatory policies that undermine girls’ rights’

    PrudenceMutisoCIVICUS speaks with Prudence Mutiso, Legal Adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights-Africa about the Tanzanian government’s policy on pregnant and married girls in schools.

    Founded in 1992, the Center for Reproductive Rights is a global human rights organisation of lawyers and advocates seeking to ensure the protection of reproductive rights as basic human rights fundamental to the dignity, equality, health and wellbeing of every person.

    The Center works across five continents and has played a critical role in securing legal victories on reproductive rights issues, including access to life-saving obstetrics care, contraception, maternal health and safe abortion services, as well as the prevention of forced sterilisation and child marriage, in national courts, United Nations’ committees and regional human rights bodies.


  • UNITED NATIONS: ‘The power of anti-rights groups is growing; difficult times lie ahead’

    CIVICUS speaks with Tamara Adrián, founder and director of DIVERLEX-Diversity and Equality Through Law, about the successful civil society campaign for the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations’ (UN) Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    Tamara Adrián is a lawyer and university professor, and the first trans woman to be elected to a national parliament in Latin America.

    DIVERLEX is a Venezuelan civil society organisation dedicated to research, training, advocacy and strategic litigation on issues of sexual diversity. Due to the complex humanitarian crisis affecting Venezuela, most of its leaders are currently based outside Venezuela, where they continue to work to improve the living conditions of LGBTQI+ people in exile.

    Tamara Adrian

    Why is the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity so important?

    This is an extremely important figure. The weapon of choice of all bigots is to make certain groups and the violation of their rights invisible. This has been a constant in relation to women, Indigenous peoples, racial minorities and religious minorities. As long as the intolerant can say a problem does not exist, their power system remains active and nothing changes. In the universal human rights system, what bigots want to keep invisible is made visible through the work of independent experts and rapporteurs.

    The first Independent Expert, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was in office for a couple of years and produced a report on violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which he shared with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He kicked off the process of shedding light on the injustices, inequities and violence against LGBTQI+ people globally.

    The three reports submitted by the current Independent Expert, Víctor Madrigal-Borloz, pointed at many countries that are failing in their duty to protect all their citizens. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that states have a positive obligation to ensure equal rights to all people.

    We understand there is still a long way to go and that reports – those by the Independent Expert, the High Commissioner and regional bodies such as the Organization of American States – are important to this process.

    So important are they that this work triggered strong backlash from fundamentalist groups that reorganised in the form of ‘non-governmental organisations’. These sought to obtain consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council in order to interfere in their processes.

    How do these groups operate within the UN?

    Anti-rights groups have been changing their strategy. Rather than identify as religious organisations, they have sought to present themselves as defenders of religious freedom and, above all, of the freedom of expression. They have promoted strategies of religious unity, bringing together Catholic fundamentalists and representatives of the Holy See with neo-evangelical fundamentalists and the most regressive Muslim groups.

    They have also refined their arguments. First, they argue that the concept of sexual orientation and gender identity is a western concept and not a universal one, and therefore should not be protected by the UN. Second, they claim that no existing treaty or international instrument provides protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Third, they say that countries with traditional values should be able to maintain discriminatory laws or criminalise same-sex relationships or diverse gender identities.

    These three claims were implicit in the arguments of the countries that opposed the renewal of the Independent Expert's mandate and proposed amendments, alongside a fourth: that no country should protect criminals, and the determination of what is a criminal act is subject to the criminal law of each country and is not subject to verification before the international human rights system.

    Historically, this issue has been resolved on the basis of the recognition that everyone has a right to their own beliefs, but no one can impose their beliefs or deny others their rights on the basis of their faith. Fundamentalists want this situation reversed so that believers can discriminate against and deny rights to other people

    Have anti-rights groups grown in power in recent years?

    The power of anti-rights groups is growing, which is possibly linked to the regression that is taking place in the USA. Indeed, in the vote to renew the mandate we saw two groups of states putting up resistance: countries that have never made progress in recognising rights and where there is a lot of resistance to change, and countries that are moving backwards, such as the USA.

    In the USA, links connecting white supremacism, neo-Pentecostal groups and the more radical segments of the Republican Party have been growing closer for at least a decade. Anti-rights groups have been taking up space in the courts, from the lowest levels to the Supreme Court, as well as in governorships and state legislatures, resulting in more and more anti-trans, anti-sex education and pro-religious freedom rulings, laws and policies. They have been outspoken in their plans to reverse abortion rights, reject the concept of gender and repeal sexual and reproductive education and contraceptive rights, and even women’s rights, equal marriage and protections against racial discrimination.

    The USA has also played a key role in the international funding of the anti-rights movement and the development of neo-Pentecostal churches around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. It has also influenced the establishment of a phenomenon that has not been given enough attention: the movement of biology-fixated feminists, who deny the concept of gender with the same arguments used by the most conservative churches.

    This unity of argumentation is highly suspicious, and all the more so when one looks at the funding streams coming from the USA feeding biology-focused feminist groups in places including Brazil, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Spain and the UK. The target of these groups is not LGBTQI+ people generally, but trans people specifically. By upholding the biological and natural character of differences they seek to destroy the whole structure of gender-based protections.

    I honestly think this is a very well-thought-out plan. I understand that they have mimicked the strategy we initially adopted to give visibility to our struggles. However, they have the advantage of being in power. The number of states that have signed a ‘pro-life’ resolution at the UN and declared themselves ‘pro-life’ states shows that their aim is not just to oppose just LGBTQI+ rights but all rights based on the concept of gender.

    How was the campaign for the renewal of the Independent Expert’s mandate organised?

    The organisations that lobbied for the renewal of the mandate have worked together ever since the campaign for the appointment of the first Independent Expert. Every time, the process starts long before the appointment. In this case, we started working about three years ago: practically the year after the mandate was renewed we were already working to create the core group to work for a new renewal.

    With Latin American organisations, a recurrent limitation is lack of knowledge of the English language, which restricts the ability of activists to internationalise their struggles. To overcome this problem, our core group is made up of both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking activists. This was very important because the coalition was mainly made up of Latin American groups.

    It was a very difficult process, and while the vote eventually turned out to be favourable, over several months the outcomes of the sessions did not make us feel confident. We saw growing resistance from countries with fundamentalist positions that were increasingly embracing the idea of rolling back rights.

    What are the next steps following the mandate’s renewal?

    I believe we should not relax. Difficult times lie ahead. Many rights we thought had already been secured are likely to be reversed in the USA, including those linked to racial equality. It is no longer even a question of returning to a 20th century vision, but to a 16th or 17th century one.

    This will have a strong impact at the global level, especially in countries with less developed institutions. Countries with stronger institutions will probably be better able to resist the onslaught to roll back sexual and reproductive rights. 

    As next steps, I would emphasise organising. In many places people tell me, ‘don’t worry, that would never happen here’, but I insist we cannot relax. We must focus on forming coalitions and organising stronger alliances to stop advances by neoconservative groups and challenge them to gain back the spaces of power they have occupied.

    Get in touch with Tamara Adrián through herwebsite or herFacebook page, and follow@TamaraAdrian on Twitter.