Lesbian Caucus Presentation
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I am honored to be able to give a face to the many and diverse lesbians from our caucus but also present at this conference, and all over the world. As a citizen of South Africa, I am even more proud to be from the first country in the world to have recognized that sexual orientation has a place in human rights and justice for all.

Even though a few of us are "open" here and in our own countries, lesbians are still invisible even at this gathering. They are invisible because even if the 21st century, is pretending to be the century of democracy and that diversity is recognized as an advancement for the civilization, there are some people who prefer to stay behind on the historic advancements in name of the morality. For us who are open, it is difficult to even organize safe space to enable us to raise and participate free from persecution.

I, together with the women that I represent do not come from a special interest group on lesbian and sexual rights alone. We are part of movements that seek to achieve equality, freedom and justice for all. We are part of women and human rights´ movements in our own countries and supporters of the Beijing PFA.

What separates us from other women is the way in which ¨labels have and continue to stigmatize and marginalize women who are lesbians or perceived to be lesbians.

But history is a process in which advances are the most important for the collective and thus to give recognition to the full diversities of all women as, for example, the Beijing´s Platform for Action affirmation to women’s human rights to sexuality free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

In our case it includes the possibilities to have access to all human rights, indivisible and integral. On daily life it is related to participation in social, political, economic and legal processes that NGOs and indeed governments are engaged in. These would include ensuring that discrimination in the areas of – for example - employment, housing, education, health and welfare services, is eliminated. It also means that we are, like many other women, subjected to violence and in our case, on the basis of our sexual orientation as well as other factors.

The possibility that a woman who transgresses social and cultural norms can be accused of being a lesbian has the effect of chilling the expression of all women’s sexuality including heterosexual women. In fact, the 1997 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women reported that "women who choose options which are disapproved of by the community ... or who live out their sexuality in ways other than heterosexuality, are often subjected to violence and degrading treatment." "For women to strive to live and work outside the watchful gaze of the family and community is to risk becoming a target for male violent behaviour."

Because women are beaten, raped, or experience other forms of violence in connection to their sexuality, many are unwilling and unable to report these crimes for fear of further retribution (possibly at the hands of police, family, or community), and for fear that police will not take their cases seriously.

There is a pervasive sense that violators can get away with their abuses without being held accountable. The implication that lesbians’ lives are worth less than the lives of other women threatens all women’s freedom. Sexual rights are related to bodily autonomy and freedom of choice. This is important for all women.

As a South African woman, I am proud that my country abolished apartheid, a system that oppressed many and in which many lives were lost. We moved forward with the recognition that ¨never again shall any one be discriminated against by the state, private bodies and any other person, on the basis of race, gender, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. As we rebuild a nation, this guarantee and recognition affirms that excluding any one group from the full exercise of their human rights would be as devastating as our history demonstrated.

South Africa is ahead of many governments. It is also, regrettably, ahead of many NGOs, advocates of justice and equality. In your work Sisters, we urge you to continue supporting the BPFA, to see that we lesbians have a place in it and to keep the affirmation on section 96.

The Lesbian caucus and lesbians all over the world, call on all of you to

  • Join and support campaigns and initiatives aimed at abolition all laws that criminalize consensual adult same sex relationships because these laws contribute to creating a climate which encourages violence against women who are, or perceived to be, lesbians.
  • Support the introduction and developments of policies and practices that will ensure justice and the expression of full human rights to women who are or are perceived to be lesbians.
  • Tell governments and their agents to ensure that all human rights violation must be investigated, documented, and prosecuted and perpetrators held accountable.
  • To support the call to extend the right to asylum to victims of discrimination and persecution based on gender and on sexual orientation because, many women who have been persecuted on this basis are forced to flee their countries.

Based on the principle of equality of all persons, we call on the United Nations and Member states to reaffirm that a person’s sexual identity or orientation should not bar them from the full exercise of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women.

We call on NGOs to support this.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that the right of all women to the expression of their sexuality depends upon what I have mentioned above. The rights of women not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexuality are, and should be seen to be, indivisible from the goals of the broader women’s human rights movement. The struggle for equality, peace and democracy cannot move forward whilst particular groups are stigmatised, marginalised and rendered invisible with little or no recourse.

We hope that this review process, in assessing achievements and obstacles to the implementation of the Platform for Action, will set in place concrete measures to promote and protect the human rights of ALL women.

Thank you.

Presented by:

Phumi Mtetwa (South Africa)

9 March 2000


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