"I am always there for you, but you don't see me!"

QAYNhandwriteThis was the message of a short video clip produced by the participants of the Activist School for young, queer women in Francophone West Africa, «Building Ourselves, Building our Communities», organised in February 2014 in Lomé, Togo by the Queer African Youth Networking Center (QAYN) and Isis International.

Nineteen young queer women from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Togo attended the five day workshop, which took place from February 10 to 14 in Lomé. The main focus of the training was on building self-awareness and journaling, community building, facilitative leadership and media for community building. For many it was the first time to attend a workshop specific to queer, young women and the first time to convene and exchange with queer women from different countries.

"Thank you for letting me know that I have sisters everywhere, especially in Africa. I have the feeling I finally arrived in my community." Said N.T., participants from Cameroon.*

Homosexuality is outlawed and punished by imprisonment in Cameroon and Togo, while the laws are silent in Burkina Faso and Benin; in addition to this legal context society marginalizes homosexuals, particularly queer women. However, despite their realities, queer young women have been organizing in these countries, and since the last two years, they are increasingly formalizing their organized work with the technical and financial support of QAYN. An example of such organizing is group visits to prison by the young activists in Cameroon to support detained lesbians. In Benin a newly formed lesbian’s group, Afro-Benin, already counts more than 50 members after less than one year. Other groups work closely with predominantly gay organisations on HIV/AIDS prevention but very few can count on the support of women's organisations. An exception to this is the support provided by Association Togolaisese pour le Bien Etre Familial (ATBEF), a women-led family planning organisation that is providing support to L-Voice, the first lesbian and bisexual association in Togo.

QAYNhandsDuring the workshop the participants defined the vision and objectives for their community. They identified the needs and potentials of their community and drafted an action plan for 2014. Among the needs identified where consciousness-raising towards behavioral changes to stop violence within the community and domestic violence among lesbian couples. Furthermore, sexual health education, literacy programs and income generation trainings for self-employed women were also identified as immediate needs. Among the potential they identified were the experiences they gathered, to work with allies, their motivation and commitments to work towards change and last but not least the capacities they acquired during this training. As strategies to address their identified needs, they suggested among others, to strengthen the solidarity within the community, legal counseling, film screening and educational gathering, train peer organisers and seek the support of allies for training, advocacy and financial assistance.

The personal sharing was a very touching moment, when all the participants explained their perceptions of relationship and roles within the couple. They were very open and the space was safe enough that they dared to question each other’s concepts, especially when it was similar to the gender roles, known in the heterosexual relationships..

"I experienced some attitude changes and return full of hope." Explained Y.S., participant from Burkina Faso.*

A highlight of the Activist School was definitively the short video clip the participants produced with the support of their trainer Khouloud Madhaoui, a multiple media activist from Tunisia. Suddenly the entire training venue turned into a very dynamic shooting studio. The clip features women in different functions, such as receptionist, cook, driver, mechanics, soccer player, mother, best friend, teacher, doctor and sister. With the message "I am always there for you but you don't see me!" The participants were very proud of the film.

"Since the first day I am in paradise, it feels so good not to be the only one in the world." Said K. M., participant from Togo.*

QAYNpostitsIsis International developed the training module on community building, self-reflectiveness and facilitative leadership; the media for community building modules were developed by QAYN’s facilitator, Khouloud Madhaoui. Some lessons learned by modules developers and Isis’s facilitator was that some of the modules were too theoretical and not very adapted to the participants’ context, such as the concept of journaling. Some liked it very much, while for others it posed a high risk, as they fear someone could read the journal and they might be exposed or even arrested. A lot of flexibility was required from Bianca Miglioretto, the Isis facilitator and Mariam Armisen, QAYN’s Founder and Coordinator. On daily basis, they had to adjust the modules to the participants level and needs. Nonetheless, the verbal evaluation of the workshop was overwhelmingly positive. Many participants deeply appreciated the sharing among peers and learning new facilitation methods, such as traditional leadership versus facilitative leadership. The latter was a new leadership concept for many of the young activists and many said they will implement it in their community:

"The module responded well to the identified needs."*
"I already attended several workshops ... But WAU! This was the best!!!"*
Declared Y. K., participant from Benin.*

by Bianca Miglioretto
Isis International

* For the safety of the participants we do not mention any names.

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