Listening to and Learning from the Mobilization Efforts of Key Populations

In March, MSMGF attended a three-day Learning Institute in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The Learning Institute was entitled, “Building Resilient Movements” and was organized by Aids Fonds as part of the Bridging the Gaps initiative (BTG). Nearly two dozen activists from local organizations attended after applying to participate. They represented their movements of sex workers, people who use drugs, transgender people, gay and bisexual men and people living with HIV. They traveled from Botswana, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Russia, South Africa, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. Two of the MSMGF’s local partners were active participants in the Learning Institute workshops, including Labrys (Kyrgyzstan) and LEGABIBO (Botswana).

Over the course of three days, Learning Institute participants worked in small groups as well as large discussions to share the successes and challenges of their work. MSMGF contributed by serving as a designated “Listener” during these sessions, helping to reflect back participants’ priorities and strategies during the larger co-learning process.

One of the first activities was a series of rotating, small-group discussions about survival. The initial prompt for these discussions was, “What do you need to survive?” This was linked to the larger Learning Institute theme of “Building Resilient Movements.” In sharing with one another, some groups of participants decided to shift the prompt from the singular to the collective, thereby asking, “What do we need to survive?” The following highlights convey some of the shared conditions and priorities that emerged.

  • Participants strongly argued for a bottom-up approach to advocacy — nothing for us without us.
  • Coalition and partnership were consistently emphasized – coalitions between key population movements, and strategic partnerships with stakeholders who may not always be familiar or friendly.
  • The question of survival was also recast in terms of self-care, with “self” constructed as both communal (taking care of one another) as well as structural (consistently valuing the importance and practice of advocacy).
  • Participants also named documentation and sharing of knowledge and information as key practices for survival. It is crucial to have research to support our existence and best practices, documentation to capture the successful strategies and models that communities have developed, and dissemination to ensure that diverse stakeholders across multiple contexts know of and value our work.
  • We were reminded that it is also important to celebrate small victories, while organizing toward longer-term change.

A concern was also raised about the limits of some donor models and the dangers of allowing donor priorities and practices to dictate the work. Again, bottom-up community-based approaches were highly encouraged, along with more flexible funding models such as BtG, and models that wed a rights-based and sexual health approaches.

During another session, Pamela Chakuvinga, of the Sisonke sex workers movement in South Africa, gave a sharply principled and deeply moving presentation of her journey and strategies in movement building. Utilizing photographs and videos from her years of collective work, she constantly invoked a sense of the we, the relationship of herself and activists to the collective, the importance of movement-building, the power of being connected and channeling the insights and priorities of others, not just an individual voice or experience. She also emphasized:

  • The importance of being diligent and persistent in our work over time;
  • Overcoming challenges to realize victories;
  • Reinforcing shared decision-making; and
  • Utilizing the power of exposure, visibility and partnerships.

Ms. Chakuvinga is particularly adept at code-switching. She consistently weds the formal speak and jargon of donors and public health officials with the vitality and wisdom of on the ground movements and action. This strategic agility resonated with other Learning Institute participants, who noted in her work a range of best practices they could adapt and carry forward with their own local movements. These included:

  • Leveraging harm-reduction strategies in legally restrictive while doing “hidden” advocacy work for sex workers;
  • Utilizing street workers as an innovative approach to engaging community in the documentation of human rights abuses;
  • Instigating strategic legislation in order to bring attention to the needs of KPs;
  • The power and beauty of different movements carrying forward one another’s initiatives over time, and how this leads to recognition of one another’s efforts and the shared causes, intersections and strategies in our work; the importance of forging ahead, despite difficulties and dangers;
  • The crucial role of self-empowerment, and not simply speaking on behalf of others;
  • The importance of developing strong, shared leadership and role models, staying accountable in the work and reporting back to community after large gatherings such as the Learning Institute or national convenings;
  • And using donors smartly, wisely as a partner, rather than simply being driven by their agenda. In some contexts, or moments, this may necessitate prioritizing movement building and advocacy over service provision.

LGBT Community Programming in Kyrgyzstan with Global Implications

In addition to small group workshops, individual case studies and large group discussions, the Learning Institute also featured opportunities to visit local activists and service organizations in Bishkek. MSMGF local partner Kyrgyz.Indigo opened its doors to international visitors who were participants in the Learning Institute. Indigo volunteered to serve as a location for two of the site visit sessions during the Learning Institute. Indigo staff and community members welcomed visitors to their community safe home, which offers groundbreaking and vital shelter, food, peer support and service referral to young LGBT people who have been kicked out of their homes due to the transphobia, homophobia and violence of family, friends and neighbors. The shelter offers lodging for up to one month, creative and sexual health programming, mental health support, and a sense of community and belonging for people facing considerable physical dangers and emotional isolation.

During the site visits, international activists were deeply moved by Indigo’s community mobilization efforts, with one Kenyan transgender leader saying they felt like they were “home.” Along with home-cooked local food and energizing dance, the visitors and shelter residents and staff found common ground discussing the similar structural challenges they face in their lives, and the community responses that make a more vibrant existence possible. The visitors expressed interest in knowing more about the current political climate and larger legal framework for LGBT people in Kyrgyzstan. MSMGF then helped to connect the local Kyrgyz and international activists with one another over email, sharing Indigo’s new and illuminating report to help provide deeper context. The trilingual report can be found here, with the English summary beginning on p. 21.

MSMGF is an expanding network of advocates and other experts in sexual health, LGBT/human rights, research, and policy, working to ensure an effective response to HIV among gay men and other men who have sex with men. We are directly linked with more than 120 community-based organizations, across 62 countries.

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