Like many sport and development (S&D) organisations throughout Africa, the organisation I have been working with since 2011 in Burkina Faso uses sport to bring youth together and to communicate lessons about HIV and sexual health practice. Using sport as a means of communicating information has shown to be an engaging alternative to talking at young people in a classroom. As an athlete myself, and one who squirmed through lessons about sexual health in a small room when I was a teenager, I can see the benefit of teaching in a setting where young people are comfortable and attending out of interest, rather than obligation.
Since its inception in 2005, the S&D organisation I work with in Burkina Faso has grown and now works in partnership with the National Ministry of Health, UNHCR, local health organizations and local schools. Through these partnerships, the organisation has been part of a movement to push policies in Burkina Faso (and West Africa) to extend access to sexual health resources and to fund education about HIV and sexual health in youth centres. Despite the successes of this movement, the drive and focus to educate youth about sexual health has a dangerous blindspot: homophobia and transphobia.
The limits of inclusion
I can remember only one occasion during a session about HIV infection out on a football pitch when homosexuality was mentioned. In this moment, the coach brushed quickly through the mandatory statement that condom use is necessary for protection not only for sex between a man and a women, but also between men. This was followed by giggles. The coach did not address the reaction of the youth, nor did anyone ask about women who have sex with women, or people who have sex with both men and women. They quickly moved on to the next exercise in the session. This moment made me pause, and I reflected on how I might feel as a young LGBT person who was part of that group. I would have felt invisible.
S&D programmes that address issues of sexual health should address them for everyone. These same programmes proclaim inclusion in their mission statements and programme goals; they work with girls, boys, different ethnicities, classes and nationalities, and with youth with disabilities. But how many of them are working with youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? I would venture that the unfortunate answer is that they do not know. And yet, in a climate where laws in countries like Uganda and Nigeria make it dangerous to even broach the topic of gender identity and sexual orientation, it is understandable that these development programmes may not even know how to begin. But this is also an opportunity, and an example of a strategic avenue for productive policy engagement that the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme at IDS is exploring.
The value of ‘gentle’ action
Some of the young women I met through my involvement with sports in Burkina Faso earlier this year introduced me to an organization called the Queer African Youth Networking Center (QAYN). QAYN is based in Ouagadougou and works throughout West Africa. They are an example of a small group of dedicated young people whose mission it is to support and foster youth activism about LGBT issues and to promote the safety and well being of gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in West Africa. They may not be a very big or visible organization, but they are providing a vital resource to youth who need support. Just like S&D programmes, they are helping these youth to build confidence and leadership skills.
When I sat with some of the youth who are part of QAYN, and asked them what the biggest problem they face in their community is, the answer they gave me was visibility. The youth in QAYN work to make LGBT people, and rights, visible; but this visibility also comes at a cost. They told me that they are often shunned by their families, and have to hide from their friends and in public because people just do not have any awareness about diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity. They said that the more people who know someone who is LGBT and who accepts them, the more their families will begin to understand and accept them.
Some of the youth who have found QAYN take part in the sport activities and sessions on HIV and sexual health that are facilitated by the S&D programme I work with. In fact, this is how I met them. And yet their identities have been all but invisible in the S&D context. Is this not an ideal opportunity for a partnership between the S&D sector and an organization that works with LGBT youth to give these young people a voice and critical support?
In a conversation with one of the young members of QAYN, he explained that laws – like societal norms – cannot change overnight. QAYN’s strategy, therefore, uses ‘gentle’ actions for building toward change. These ‘gentle actions’ include supporting LGBT youth, creating partnerships with other NGOs in their communities and raising awareness with local organisations and policy makers to lay the groundwork for potential policy and law change in the future.
The members of QAYN are incredibly brave and safety is a perpetual challenge for them, even in a country like Burkina Faso where homosexuality is not specifically outlawed but is socially proscribed. QAYN welcomed me and my colleagues from the S&D organization, offering to help with our sexual health curriculums and activities, and asking with genuine interest if they could visit a sport event. This rare meeting of sectors is an opportunity to contribute to these “gentle” changes in perceptions that QAYN is working toward, and one that other S&D organisations should actively seek out. It is part of the necessary on-the-ground steps toward social change that are the undercurrent to legal and policy changes on such controversial issues.
 translated from French: doux/douce