By Leigh Ann van der Merwe, Director, S.H.E.
There is a voice that is silent from Africa… a voice no one hears, despite its loud scream. There is a faceless person, despite standing in a crowd of millions. That person has a name, a face, and an identity. These are the transgender women in South Africa. Strides have been made for the rights of transgender people in South Africa, yet many of the issues affecting black, impoverished transgender women go unattended. This is where the idea of a feminist collective dedicated to addressing the issues of transgender women in South Africa originated and S.H.E. (Social, Health and Empowerment feminist collective of transgender and intersex women of Africa) was established.
Unlike our white privileged counterparts who may navigate and transition due to their economic statues, Black Transgender women are often poor and marginalised. Access to hormone treatment is generally perceived as a privilege instead of a human right to treatment. There are many barriers to gender affirming services in the public health service in South Africa. Only two public facilities provide care of this nature. Both currently have a 26-year waiting list. Private medical practitioners only treat on a pay-for services basis.
Knowing your rights are intrinsically linked to privilege is painful for us and divisive for our movement. We can’t hide or choose a particular type of privacy as we endure stares, harassment and violence within the public systems of South Africa. In post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa, we must talk about these differences across race and class divides.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that transgender people of colour in South Africa are at heightened risk of experiencing violence and hate crimes. The violence transgender woman of colour experience in South Africa is broad and varied. We’ve read articles and seen videos documenting physical violence. But, systemic violence is silent, invisible, and violates transgender women as they try to access services. Often, transgender women are categorised as men and included in MSM/ HIV research and services. This prevents many transgender women from accessing health services. Transgender women face increased barriers to finding employment, which often leads them to sex work. There they are subject to arbitrary arrests from police. It is within this vicious circle that they become vulnerable to sexual violence and rape. And, it is heightened when, in police custody, they are locked up with cis-gender men (i.e. individuals assigned as male at birth and identify as male).
As we advocate for recognition, we face both internal and external challenges. S.H.E has chosen a feminist framework in which to organise. Our struggle plays against the backdrop of a racially challenged South Africa, and, as underprivileged South Africans, we fight many isms (classism, racism, chauvinism, patriarchy). The feminist maxim of equality in substance and process is of paramount importance to our work. Yet, still we must justify using a feminist framework for our analysis. We must justify a womanist approach2 to our work, and we have to explain why we want to advocate for our rights within mainstream women’s efforts. Some argue that transgender women cannot use a feminist approach to organising, based on the notion that we enjoy male privilege. But the violence and discrimination that we suffer is based, precisely, on the gender stereotypes we transcend. These conceptual difficulties are part of why it is not easy for projects such as ours to raise the resources to function effectively. S.H.E runs programs informed and led by transgender women. The leadership of the organisation is comprised mostly of transgender women from the continent. We strive to make our employment policies transgender women specific. These ideals support a mission and vision, underpinned by human rights, equality and freedom for the very people we wish to serve. To implement this mission requires adequate resources.
Well-meaning researchers, and scholars who take for granted that transgender women can be producers of knowledge, but not subjects of our own struggle, compound the challenges of South African transgender women. Many come to South Africa to research and document the experience of transgender women, but do not link these studies to advocacy strategies or for change rooted in our communities. When they leave, nothing is altered in advancing the rights of transgender women. I am that transgender woman featured in so many Ph.D dissertations, HIV research, and documentation of violent experiences. I have a face, I have a name, and I have an identity. There needs to be a better effort at forging relations between activists and those supporting our efforts from the West, based on the understanding that African problems have to be solved by African people, with African solutions. We transgender women must be seen in our racial, class, and other diversities. Ultimately, it is we who are the relevant stakeholders in our struggle for equality and rights.
S.H.E Coordinator and Founder Leigh Ann van der Merwe was born in Ugie, Eastern Cape of South Africa. Growing up as a gender questioning person, she struggled to conform to typical male gender codes and as a result always felt left out both in family life and at school. Leigh Ann’s first gender challenge was attempting to play on the Ugie High School Netball team. Netball is a female sport code in South Africa. She struggled through high school and graduated from Blackhealth High School in 2000. She enrolled for an LL.B degree with the University of the Western Cape in 2001 but did not complete due to financial difficulty.
Through another trans woman that Leigh Ann was introduced to trans activism in 2007. Her experience of activism includes being a candidate in the Transitioning Africa Exchange Program from 2010 to 2011; She was a fellow in the Open Society/Austrian American Foundation/Transgender Centre of Excellence program in Salzburg, Austria, October 2011 and presented at a transgender consultation at UNAids in Geneva, November 2011. She holds a seat on the United Nations steering committee for transgender people in the Global South.
Leigh Ann reviewed a number of gender literature resources produced by other NGO’s and was part of the study team on a UNFPA report on the challenges of sex workers in the East London area. She is actively involved with NGO’s dealing with gender & women’s issues, HIV and public health. She is the secretary of the board of an East London based NGO working with orphans and vulnerable children. She presented two papers at the first ever IGLHRC sponsored, Gender Dynamix Transgender Health and Research Conference November 2011. In 2012, Leigh Ann received an award from the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in recognition of her work as a Women’s Rights Defender. She holds a certificate in Community Journalism from the University of South Africa. She is passionate about feminism and women’s rights.