GOMA - For the past 30 years, Dufina Tabu has been defending human rights in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province in Congo. Tall and thin, with white hair, Dufina is a forthright man. He inherited his frankness, he says, from his father, a progressive man who worked as an accountant for the Belgian colonists and fathered at least 22 children.
Dufina, a teachers' college graduate, is now in his sixties. He began his career in human rights when President Mobutu still ran the country. (His corrupt, authoritarian regime ran from 1965 until it was overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 1997.)
"I believe Dufina is the first man in Goma to have talked about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," says Mushushu Paluke, former head of the Kasika neighborhood. Paluke met Dufina in 1982 when he was speaking on human rights at the scouts' primary school. Dufina was so active that he was nicknamed "Human Rights."
He has garnered most public attention for denouncing conditions at the Munzenze central prison, a place he knows all too well. "I have been imprisoned there at least five times. I have also been subject to countless detentions and illegal arrests for denoucing the human rights violations perpetrated by Goma’s top officials." His NGO, ASVOCO (Association of Congolese Volunteers in Goma), has offices all around the province. This allows him to receive information from the farthest corners of North Kivu.
Delphin Mponga, another human rights activist, admires Dufina's persistence. "The authorities always try to defeat human rights defenders by arresting them, intimidating them, even making death threats against them. In spite of all that, Dufina refuses to keep quiet."
"Just a year ago, at the end of 2011, I was imprisoned for denouncing the inhuman conditions for prisoners at Munzenze," Dufina says bitterly. He does not say "again," but he might as well have. "In spite of everything, it was not a waste of time," he says.
He knows the workings of the legal system inside and out, and has made this prison his number one target. "The central prison is overcrowded," he says. “The prison was built to hold 150 inmates. Now there are more than 1,080." However, in the past few years, the prisoners' conditions seem to have improved somewhat, largely through his work.
"In 2004, the detainees were treated like animals," says Jean Bandit, a former inmate nicknamed "Pastor David," who has become a preacher at an evangelical Christian church in Goma. "They had nothing to eat, no health care, and were totally cut off from the outside world." According to him, the inmates used to believe food was a privilege, but they have now realized that it was a basic right they were entitled to, thanks to Dufina. "They learned that they had basic rights, and that they needed to fight for them," he explains. "They would come to see me to tell me how things were and ask what they could do about it."
Dufina received new nicknames from the prisoners, including "Savior" and "Nelson Mandela." In 2010, Dufina gave an interview to a Radio Okapi journalist through a hole in the wall of his cell. He was able to contradict the official information about the "good conditions" at the prison. After having heard the radio report, the authorities demanded that he be freed immediately.
Much remains to be done, but now at least authorities - who are apparently listening to the prisoners' requests - have provided mattresses for them to sleep on.
Since 2010, the Kinshasa government has been sending $43,000 a month to the Munzenze central prison to improve conditions. But prison officials were managing the money without any oversight, explains a prison guard who wants to remain anonymous. In 2011, Dufina denounced this lack of supervision in the media. The money is now managed by a commission that includes a representative of ASVOCO.
In 1982 Dufina arrived in Congo from Burundi, where he was born in 1955. "This country seemed like hell to me. You couldn't even talk about human rights for fear of retaliation from Mobutu's dictatorship," he recalls. He decided to create the Association of Zaire Volunteers (ASVOZA), which has now become ASVOCO.
One of his proudest feats is an open letter he wrote to Mobutu in January 1996, asking him to return the property he had confiscated under the name of “zaïrianisation” (Zaire was the Congo’s name during Mobutu’s rule). Under this program, land, farms, businesses and factories belonging to foreigners were expropriated and nationalized or handed over to Mobutu cronies.
Dufina has also tried his hand at politics. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for Parliament. Currently, he says his priority is denouncing the human rights violations in the region’s armed conflicts. His vision for his NGO is ultimately to be a "school" for human rights.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
- In Northern Colombia, LGBT Rights Meet Indigenous Prejudice ... ›
- LGBTQ+ In Morocco: A New Video Series To Open Minds ... ›
- Why Italy Is So Slow In Protecting LGBTQ From Violence ... ›