Women Human Rights Defenders: How Intersectionality is put into Practice in Southern Africa

On 23rd September 2021 Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation held a webtalk entitled “Women Huma Rights Defenders: How Intersectionality is put into Practice in Southern Africa.”  Three Human Rights Defenders were invited to the online discussion, all of them actively engaged with the Masakhane* Project.


Three activists from lesbian, bi- and queer women’s collectives in Mozambique and Eswatini discuss the current developments which have impacts on their work in their respective countries. They explain how the concept of intersectionality is being put into practice amidst often violent challenges. We will also hear about the feminist strategy of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) and their experiences.

What does the growing threat to LGBTI people in various countries mean for us in Germany, particularly in view of the German government’s new LGBTIInclusion Strategy for Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation.


Botho Maruatona, Coalition of African Lesbians, Community and Campaigns Officer (Botswana)

Uzna Malunga, Feminist Brunch/Masakhane Collective(Mozambique)

Thuthu Magagula, Eswatini Queer Women’s Collective(Eswatini)

Moderator: Cornelia Sperling, German Project Supporter of Masakhane (Germany)

Welcome: Sarah Kohrt, project manager Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

Intersectionality is a way to understand our being as feminists, as women on the African Continent (Botho Maruatona)

“It is about fighting discrimination within discrimination” (Unza Malunga)

Sarah Kohrt:

Sarah Kohrt project Manager, Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung (Photo by HES)

Welcome everybody! Thank you all for joining form different countries and even continent. This event will be held in English and it is part of the Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation project “LGBTIQ Human Rights Defenders”. It is kindly supported by the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection following a decision of the German Parliament. I would now like to pass over to our moderator, Cornelia Sperling, who is the German supporter of the Masakhane project for LSVD. Dear Cornelia, the floor is yours:

Cornelia Sperling:

Cornelia Sperling-Moderator, Botho Maruatona-Coalition of African Lesbians (Photo by HES)

Welcome to our online talk. I’m actually one of the supporters of the activities our guests will talk about today. My own activism in this context is dedicated to a partnership project for lesbian and queer grassroot groups in Southern Africa and in Germany.

I’m very happy that we have the chance to meet women human rights activists from Southern Africa. There is Botho from Botswana. She works for the Coalition of African Lesbian as Community and Campaigns Officer. She is responsible for the Masakhane Project. Before she worked as gender and advocacy officer at LEGABIBO, the LGBTI organization in Botswana.

And we welcome Uzna from Mozambique. She is active in the Mashakane Project, especially in the LBQ Women Group Feminist Brunch in Mozambique. And we welcome Thuthu from Eswatini (Swaziland). She is active as a human rights defender and a member of the Eswatini Queer Women’s Collective.

First, I would like to ask you, Botho, to give us the framework and explain the strategy of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) regarding intersectionality.

Coalition of African Lesbians: Strategies regarding intersectionality

Botho Maruatona:

Botho Maruatona: Coalition of African Lesbians (Photo by HES)

From the Coalition of African Lesbians, we identify as Pan-African feminists. We do ascribe to ideologies that stem from feminist thoughts that all of our experiences have an intersecting link to how we experience life on a daily basis. And we have discovered over the time (or at least in our analysis we have grown to understand) that an intersectional approach allows us to have a more broader view of gender, race, sexuality etc when we can locate economic injustice, violence and any other injustices and how they are connected and what sustains them.

CAL Demo Screenshot by HES

Our strategy is to use the framework of intersectionality coupled with a few others such as autonomy (bodily), to ensure that when we speak about intersectionality, or about experiences of women human rights defenders we’re able to bring in a sense of understanding of the issues they are faced with, violence at individual or state level, access to resources, access to abortion services, as well as broadening an understanding about who is affected by these issues and what are the root causes. In order to build and share this ideology, a project such as Masakhane was born. It is a regional campaign that focuses on understanding and interpretating bodily autonomy by groups of feminists in different countries in the Southern Africa region, which we will speak to a little more with actual experiences from Eswatini and Mozambique.

CAL at work (Photo by HES)

For us, intersectionality is a way to understand our being as feminists, as women on the African continent, as women living with HIV, as women living with disabilities or as migrants. What is the fundamental connection? What is the common factor, that links all our identities together and brings our experiences together? Often the common factor is the lack of autonomy or the lack of freedoms. That is the link, to those various experiences, by one body (whether as queer woman, sex worker, or both) but also by many other recognized bodies that have these similar experiences.

CAL pride 2021 (Photo by HES)

So I cannot necessarily step out of this body to experience something else, when I identify as a queer woman on the African continent. These are occurences obviously happening at different levels at different times and in different ways, and we experience them quite differently. That is basically what we as CAL have understood as intersectionality. Just highlighting the fact that the one basis of our experiences stems from the fact that there is a system that controls how the manifestations of our lack of autonomy and lack of freedoms then happens, which is patriarchy.

Cornelia Sperling:

How is the concept of intersectionality put into practice in Mozambique? Please tell us about the current developments and activities.

Feminist Brunch Mozambique: Intersectionality in feminism is about fighting discrimination within discrimination

Uzna Malunga:

My name is Uzna Malunga, I’m with the Feminist Brunch from Mozambique. I would like to start this presentation by talking a little bit about of our country situation. You must have heard the northern part of Mozambique, Cabo Delgado, is suffering terroristic attacks. And for us as a nation, this is a very fragile moment, because only now we are finding out about the situation there through foreign media. We didn’t even know, that these attacks were occuring for a couple of years now.

Uzna Malunga-Feminist Brunch Mozambique (Photo by HES)

Also, we are dealing with COVID-19 and it is needless to say, that the nation was not at all prepared to a public health issue of this magnitude. Our educational system is very much affected. The schools are opening, closing and reopening. It seems like we do not have an actual plan of how to deal with the COVID pandemic nor do we have a vaccination plan until now. We received the vaccine, when there is a donation from other countries. Until now, the majority of the population don’t even know when or how they will be vaccinated. It’s complicated for us to go about our lives, gather and everything.

The pandemic came in a moment when we were still trying to recover from two cyclones that happened in the central part of the country. Well, chaos came upon us. And we are now watching the trial of the biggest corruption scheme on Mozambique regarding the illegal depth that the country contracted involving the former President and the current President. Basically this sums up our weak institutions, the criminal management that we are under. Thus, we are under a lot of tensions.

Regarding the law for the LBQ+ community we have we had few advances. For instance,  homosexuality was recently decriminalized in Mozambique, but still, homophobia is not a crime. In a case of homophobic attack, we still don’t know where to run. In terms of the law, there is no solid legal structure to backs our needs.

Now jumping to the question regarding the Feminist Brunch, activities and intersectionality. Well, I can say that as a collective intersectionality in feminism is about fighting discrimination within discrimination. In this view, we know that women experience oppression in many configurations and degrees. This is why when we created the Feminist Brunch, we had to consider intersectionality. I say this because we have this decolonial approach of feminism, because when we started hearing about feminism in Mozambique, it came to us through the experiences of Brazilian and Portuguese women. They already had an entire agenda.

We quickly realized that we didn’t fit in the same struggles. So we recognize to discuss our practices and see how feminism would fit in our different cultures and varieties from region to region, from upbringing, from stories etc. I guess that this work wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have intersectionality as our frame. As a feminist collective, we have patriarchy as our enemy. But each member of the group has a different upbringing, a different baggage and different struggle, thus a different story. Since the very beginning, when we created this collective, we had the idea of intersectionality because we always understood that each and every struggle should be acknowledged. We knew that when we created the collective. We are growing more into what intersectionality is and how we can explore it.

And yet we manage together and work together for our individual struggles. For example, we have a topic that is linked to the women whom we invite to have a conversation with us. So we go from body shaming to divorce to motherhood to polygamy and etc. Different women have a platform where they can voice their struggles and reach women with the same stories or with different stories. So we always see individual struggles as a struggle of the collective.

Also, we will publish a book that we are now editing. The idea of this book actually came when we realized that we do not have an actual documentation of queer women, especially in this corner of the world. It’s easier to find documents about gay men and from a different perspective. So we decided to put ourselves on the map and tell our own stories. For this book we include women from different regions, completely different stories and ages and socio economic status. We managed to contact them, talk with them. We even managed to contact Angola, it is another Portuguese speaking country here in Africa. We made this link with other queer women and will tell their stories, too. For us, each story is worth telling.

The fact that we were able to work with the Coalition of African Lesbians helped us to provide mental health assistance for the women of our collective. Initially the help would be for queer women inside the group, but it ended up benefiting all women of the group. I think this is a great example of how we manage to work on intersectionalities as a collective.

Cornelia Sperling:

Thank you one for your insights. Please let us now shift to Eswatini and hear about the activities there. Even German media reported about the struggle for democracy some weeks ago.

Thuthu Magagula:

Thuthu Magagula - Eswatini Queer Women's Collective (Photo by HES)


One of the things that helped us from the objectives of the Masakhane project was bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy as a concept affects women from all ways of lives within diversities. This is one way in which we have been able to use intersectionality. Actually to have a space for ourselves, even though it is not easy. Sometimes you are able to get involved in those spaces, your voices are heard. Most of the time your voices are only listened to at a certain level, when you are talking about the things that people want to hear and love to hear. But when you want to speak specifically about human rights and the lives and the rights of LBQ women in particular, it’s a very, very difficult space to navigate.

But I mean, we’ve tried to work with groups that maybe work on gender based violence. We’ve recently endorsed a call to classify gender based violence against women as a national emergency, due to the high instances of women being killed by men. We try to align ourselves with transwomen as well, which are being classified as key populations. The government seemed to be lenient, but in practice this not the case. Some of our work that we have also done is reaching out to rural women, because most interventions of civil society are based in urban areas. And yet, there is a huge lack of information and knowledge sharing in the rural areas, particularly on human rights and gender equality.

And talking about feminism, we have had some feminist conscious raising workshops to provide a more open approach to feminism that is inclusive for everyone – and not just seen as a foreign concept, but as a concept that speaks to the equality and autonomy of all women. And quite recently, we are very much involved in the calls for democracy to emancipate the country from dictatorship. We have issued a statement in that regard to say we are supporting the call for change. We are against the way that we are being ruled with the hope, that in the new Swaziland our rights will be recognized as well.


I would like to learn more about your activities, like your very important research work. In addition, you supported the registration of an LGBTI organization. Please tell us more about your work.

Registration case of Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM) is pending

Thuthu Magagula:

The survey „Life realities of LBQ women“ has given us an opportunity to get a rough baseline on LBQ women. The target was including 200 LBQ from across the country. We hope that the data collected will help us to know how to deal with some of the arising and prevailing issues, like homophobia, stigma and discrimination, mental health and wellbeing – based on the evidence. The evidence is there, but it did not have the concreteness before. That is brought about by the proven numbers from this survey. With this evidence, we hope that it will also increase our visibility and fulfill some of the needs that arise and which affect women in general.

Concerning the registration case Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM) – one of the LGBT groups in Swaziland – is seeking to register as a formal organization. It represents the interests of LGBT people. But several times before the government has said no. At the moment, it is in the appeal stage. The government argues that it’s a nonsensical application and it’s un-Swazi, that it does not fit into the cultural norms of the country.

Almost a year ago we went to court, since then we haven’t received any feedback. Now the excuse would be the COVIDpandemic, courts are working slow. That is the prevailing situation in Swaziland where things are silenced and just put under the carpet until they rot.


In 2019 Amnesty International published the report „Challenging Power, fighting Discrimination – A call to action to recognize and protect women human rights defenders“. It says “Women human rights defenders are challenging patriarchal power structures, harmful norms and stereotyped gender roles. Therefore, oppressive measures by governments are often at first directed against women led and LGBTI groups because they challenge the status quo.” You are doing such great work and you have good strategies. But at the same time women and LGBTIgroups are marginalized and have to cope with limited resources and funding. Isn’t it over-burdening to put intersectional and decolonial tasks on the shoulders of queer women human rights defenders, on your shoulders?


It is burdensome in the sense that resources are not channeled to LBQ movements. We only have few resources, especially for work that is meaningful to LBQ persons in terms of SRHR, violence against women & queer persons. At the same time women are in the forefront, it happens to be queer people who are always putting their bodies in the frontline. We’ve seen this example in Eswatini during the uprising that happened a few months ago. The people at the forefront where women and they were queer. But, later those are the same people who would be put in the back seat when any resolve is reached or the table is set for conversation. The reality is that women and LGBT groups are marginalized even within movements that are for human rights — the women’s rights movement sidelines LBQ persons when they benefit from the labour of LBQ persons during a struggle. At the same time, within the LGBTIQ movement – lesbians, bisexual women and queer persons remain unseen majority of the time. It is sometimes overburdening, yes and it is unfortunate that it doesn’t only happen with government structures.  Inter movement politics and organizing continue to side line us. In as much as we speak of a collectiveness in terms of recognizing each other’s points of struggle and contributions to how we can unburden each other. We still find that there is a hierarchy in terms of who gets prioritized, when a solution is found or when there is a progression in a particular way.

But then if we are not going to do it, then who is going to do it for us? I think we are our own protectors and saviors. That’s okay, because we are doing the work that is needed for us and also for the people that we recognize. I think our feminist ideology is not based on who is the bigger victim or who is experiencing the bigger injustice. It is basically about the world seeing us in a particular lens. This is the lens that we are handing to the world and teaching, even though the teaching can also be quite depleting for people doing that labour. It is important to recognize that it does not stem from a championing of thoughts and struggle but because this is our lives.


What Botho has said sums it up and I just want to add: What other option is there? Really it often feels burdensome, but it is work that needs to be done. And who else can do it, but us? Because when you are getting negativity and homophobia from all angles, from the government, from the  religious sector, which is big in Swaziland, and sometimes from the people that you are supporting as well, the people that you are trying to navigate the space with. Like I said before, they will give you the table to a certain extent. So we really have to find ways to navigate the space anyhow, regardless of the burden and the challenges.


Let’s go to our next theme, the connection with the LGBTIInclusion Strategy on Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation of the German government from March 2021. In our web talk last year Botho, you mentioned a very important aspect, I want to quote it. You said: „There are two parts of aid from the Global North, the aid that they give to governments, the same governments that have punitive laws against queer persons and groups that are constantly marginalized. On the other hand, there is aid that is given to civil society to combat the same government that is given aid to or that is in some bilateral relationship with countries in the north“

I think this is one of the basic contradictions in which we have to move and to deal with. The German government declares the main goal of their inclusion strategy is “to provide structurally sustainable support to the LGBTI human rights work undertaken by civil society”. What do you think would be useful for your human rights work in your countries, for example, by German embassies or the government? How can civil society groups in Germany intensify their cooperation with you?


I still share the same sentiment that I had a year ago. We can’t say it enough in the sense of aid, assistance and support from governments of the Global North need to be navigated in a way that collectives, like the ones that we’ve worked with in the Masakhane project or organizations like CAL can be a reference, that we have done enough work to show what their/our actual needs are and what the support should look like.

Leading from the fact that people who live on this continent, people who experience the things that happen on this continent, people who want particular change on the continent are the same people who can guide a development of a foreign policy. I know this has a more layered view in terms of how does that happen? I think connections and partnerships like the ones that CAL has with Filia and LSVD and many other organizations around the world who are funders or have ties to funders are important for us to always amplify the fact that the Global South has an agenda.

This is important, when our government speaks of a foreign agenda, especially in terms of LGBT human rights work, as if it is an importation of an agenda. But we have our own agenda. This is why we do the work, that we do. This is why we create our own knowledge. This is why we unearth the injustices that happen: To build a case for the kind of aid, of shifting systems that we need to see. Having that sort of reference or a baseline helps us to say we have done the work, if we want some kind of support. Then we can decide what the agenda looks like. Because that is what it should be and not necessarily a hand to say, if we are giving you funding or if we are supporting you in a particular way.

It is very important for us always to assert the fact that we know what the context is. We know how contexts shift all the time. There could be peace in Eswatini or Mozambique today. The next morning we wake up with terrorist attacks or a King who has fled the country because of the unrest. But if the only purpose of the support coming from a German embassy or any other Embassy is we need to get the work done, we need to make sure that the people are going for decriminalization – that is a very small part of what the reality is. There are more realities, more experiences and things that happen in real time that need more focus.

COVID has shown there has been a prioritization of which bodies are important, and it is definitely not queer people, it is definitely not sex workers. It is even not people living with HIV, because with the COVID-lockdowns and the restrictions of movement, people in the countries that we work with had to go without any medication for a couple of months. Medication that is provided by the government, the same government that gets funding from foreign missions, and the same missions we report to saying we have these limitations. So it’s a murky relationship.

Cornelia Sperling, Thuthu Magagula, Botho Maruatona (Photo by HES)

But the only way to fix these relationships is for a flexible kind of approach in how embassies or foreign missions try to support movements such as the Queer Women’s movement or women human rights defenders. There’s a need to be very flexible and an understanding that the flexibility does not mean lack of accountability. It does not mean that we are saying there are no parameters at all. That’s not what we’re saying, but you need to be able to understand what our own politics are. Also collectively as a continent, as a movement, what our shared values and shared politics are. And so when we do ask for flexibility or demand flexibility, it is only for us to be able to transit in a way that is suitable for where we are currently, a situation which could easily shift the next day.

And so, you know, it’s a constant navigation and learning of how can we cultivate these relationships with foreign missions? How can we cultivate relationships with actual production of the references? I don’t want to call it evidence, because a lot of the time evidence is what foreign missions look for. And unfortunately, people’s life can’t always be evidenced. We can’t always put numbers to people’s actual lived experiences. It’s bigger than that.


I think from a grassroots level, the action that is needed is very urgent because there is a lot which is lacking. There’s a lot, that is not happening. Things that other people may see as symbols, such as sharing of ideas or strategies, how others who have been through the same road have managed. Those are some of the things that we still need in particular living in a country like Swaziland, that is very secretive and very silent on many things, that is not open to the views of its people, more than it listens to outsiders.

Actually, we have seen statements of support from foreign embassies on the state of the situation,  the state of affairs of women and the state of activists, who have been arrested, the state of children who are living in poverty. Most of actions begin to be taken, when they have been stated by support, foreign embassies. Those are some of the actions that we wish and hope that we can get from Germany. Things like emergency support, whether need arises with the recent unrest. Soldiers can come to your house at any time and abuse you, just because you have been out on the streets in the afternoon. Some have a broken leg from the protest, they have to go to hospital. Sometimes you find that most of the time things that get attention are seen as big things, like people having been short, killed or murdered on the streets. But women have been raped by soldiers. This does get as much attention as they should get, because it is the reality of women who are out there on the streets calling for political change.

Things like emergency support, asylum – where possible – are real things that are needed currently in our country. Just showing solidarity, because our government listens more to other people then they listen to us. Like tomorrow we will go to an embassy because we know this is the only place where we haven’t been shot. But when we do it on our local streets, people are shot and killed. So real time things are urgent actions for us, we hope they can be taken.


We know that here the government always has an agenda, whereas we have our own agenda as a collective — as women. So since the very beginning, as a collective, we try to distance ourselves from this. I don’t know, how the German government could currently help us directly.


What about social networks or social media?


Some of the concerns that could come with are: We need to consider which reach we have and how far reaching the content can be, because it is not always safe for people in their particular countries. If our offer is to share those platforms with global movements or the collectives here which are part of this partnership, it is always important to ensure that we do the checks that are necessary to make sure that this is public information. We need consent from the people who are part of the process. It is always important to have that conversation prior.


Panel Screenshoot (Photo by HES)

Thank you. I think it will be very important to hear more of your voices, because it is a bad European habit to develop concepts or impose own concepts without listening to the activists. We need your voices and opinions for civil society groups lobbying to implement the LGBTI inclusion strategy in Germany. It was a good start today. I wish we can have more discussions in the future to combine our energies.

I would like to thank the Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation for making this discussion possible. It is part of the project “LGBTIQ Human Rights Defenders”, supported by the German Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection. Special thanks to Sarah to organize this. Thanks to Botho, Uzna and Thuthu. I am very grateful that you joined us, that you shared your activism and strategies. And thanks a lot for your comments on the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy.

Talk documented by Dr. Rita Schäfer*

*Dr. Rita Schäfer: Freelance researcher and author of several books and studies on gender in Southern Africa, including, together with Eva Range: Wie mit Homophobie Politik gemacht wird (2013), The political use of homophobia (2014): https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/09598.pdf
Dr. Rita Schäfer runs a literature database on gender issues on the African continent: https://www.gender-africa.org/index.php 

Literature and Weblinks compiled by Dr. Rita Schäfer 

Eswatini (Swaziland):

Müller, Alex, Daskilewicz, Kristen and the Southern and East African Research Collective on Health (SEARCH) (2019). ‘Are we doing alright? Realities of violence, mental health, and access to healthcare related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in eSwatini: Research report based on a community-led study in nine countries’. Amsterdam: COC Netherlands.



Amnesty International: Challenging power, fighting discrimination: A call to action to ecognize and protect women human rights defenders, AI Publication, Index Number: ACT30÷1139÷2019 London 2019: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/act30/1139/2019/en/

Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), Masakhane Project

The Masakhane Project is an empowerment project for queer women in three southern African Countries. It is run by the Coalition of African Lesbians and funded by the German Ministry for Development Cooperation. The project was initiated by LSVD in 2014 with funding from filia.die frauenstiftung (women´s foundation). LSVD and filia are the German partner NGOs. Cornelia Sperling is the German Project Supporter for LSVD of the Masakhane Project. The project is in the last term of its second funding cycle and will end in 2021.

Further web links compiled by Dr. Rita Schäfer:

LEGABIBO, Botswana:


German Government´s 
LGBTI Inclusion Strategy for Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation

Find all German articles in LSVD/Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation´s Blog here: https://blog.lsvd.de/tag/masakhane/

LSVD/HES-Blog: LGBTI-inklusive Menschenrechtsarbeit im südlichen Afrika, das Masakhane Projekt (Webtalk, 23. September 2020, documentation in German)

An event by Hirschfeld-Eddy-Foundation as part of the project: LGBTIQ Human Rights Defenders.

Go back to project overview here