Friday, August 22, 2014

Meditation a Key Component to Personal Safety for LGBTI Activists in Sierra Leone

A Sierra Leonean LGBTI activist draws a "tree of well-being" to reflect on his personal support network at a personal security training session July 26-27.

FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONEWhen the concept of personal safety is discussed among human rights practitioners, few look to meditation or yoga for answers. In Sierra Leone, however, LGBTI activists are willing to adopt any strategy that could ensure their safety in an increasingly hostile environment.

LGBTI activists in Sierra Leone routinely face death threats, verbal and physical attacks, and public condemnation, according to a recent survey that Global Rights conducted. The threat of physical violence—and even death—is a forceful deterrent to LGBTI activists. Furthermore, when LGBTI activists are physically or verbally attacked, they opt not to report it for fear of being publicly exposed as a homosexual. Global Rights understands that if LGBTI activists do not feel safe to advocate for their rights, there will be no advocacy.

That’s why on June 26 and 27, Global Rights hosted a training session on personal safety for 16 LGBTI activists. The training focused on an “integrated” concept of security, which emphasizes psychological stability as well as physical safety. Day 1 began in the morning with yoga exercises; at 2 p.m., there was “energetic breathing.” The LGBTI activists who participated in the training are part of the Coalition for Equality and Gender, a coalition Global Rights helped found in 2012 that comprises seven local rights organizations—three of which work only on LGBTI rights—that banded together to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

During the training session, participants were encouraged to reflect upon their support networks in order to cultivate a sense of self-confidence. They were asked to sketch their own “tree of well-being,” which consists of five parts, starting with the “roots,” or what grounds and stabilizes them, and the “fruits,” or successes of which they are proud. They also explored ways of alleviating stress by outlining strategies to cope with the low self-esteem, grief and self-deprecation that stem from their alienation from society and families. From a more traditional personal security approach, participants were asked to recognize observable patterns in threats and attacks from homophobic groups—in addition to their own patterns, public profiles and frequented locales—to mitigate the risks of facing an attack. The training was co-facilitated by Hope Chigudu, a respected gender activist and consultant from West Africa.

Since 2012, Global Rights has been working with LGBTI- and human rights partners in Sierra Leone, where an anti-sodomy law contributes to an oppressive stigmatization of LGBTI persons. Many LGBTI persons are forced from their homes by their families, resulting in homelessness and poverty. LGBTI persons also avoid seeking medical attention for fear that doctors will link their illness to homosexuality, which will in turn cause their alienation from society and their families. Other components to Global Rights’ project in Sierra Leone include: grassroots advocacy training for LGBTI activists; engagement with youth groups; sensitization of local media to the issues facing the LGBTI community; and training police to properly address violence and threats against LGBTI individuals.

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