ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) published this interview with Kanyanta Kakana of Zambia, a young feminist trans woman and independent human rights activist who was recently elected alternate co-chair (female) on the Pan Africa ILGA board.
A transgender is a woman who changes herself to a man or man who changes himself to a woman.
How did you become a human rights activist?
My activism started in my bedroom (laughs).
I’ll explain: I have different things I want to do in life, and for sure I have always wanted to inspire people and encourage peace. I started my activism at a very young age, in my bedroom, and back then I didn’t even know what it was – you have a random thought about an issue that affects you, and all of a sudden you stand up, and you’re speaking about it, and about how change would affect you and the society you live in.
At that point, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to educate people and speak about issues that matter. I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world.
How long ago did this happen?
It was years ago, I was 17 or 18 years old. My activism, then, officially began with different LGBTI organisations: that is when I started engaging and learning about human rights and health issues, and that’s when I found out I really wanted to do this. I came to activism when there were groups existing in my country context already. I found organisations and started engaging with them to learn more. I was a community member and leader for trans women at the first organization I volunteered with. I was a community representative engaging with the organisations to learn how to provide various services for the community, with a focus on building capacity and data capturing.
What was the size of the trans community you were working with? Was it also mixed with the broader LGBTI community?
It was mainly a small, separate part of the general LGBTI community. The organization I volunteered with was moving away from the broader LGBTI movement and forming an independent trans movement, and our work was mainly on trans and intersex.
How has your work evolved since then?
After I became an independent activist within my country context, I attended a training for HIV counselling and testing, and then I started working as that. At the same time I also began doing a lot of work around media: my focus soon turned to raising awareness about trans and HIV/AIDS issues, and social media became my main platform for advocacy and education. I am also working on building a network of allies, and right now I am focusing on allies in the media world. At the moment, though, I am still at the point where I am thinking about how I can get the conversation started.
I am also working on building my capacity as an individual, and as an independent human rights activist: I want to learn more, attend trainings and be exposed to things, so that I can do my work well.
Is there a reason why you target media as an ally?
For me it is essential to raise awareness and bring the conversation about trans identities to the table. In relation to the context I work in, we can’t move on to discuss anything else without starting these conversations first.
When you work as an activist, you approach policy makers, or health ministers, who say they understand trans issues, but are always asking the same question: “What about public opinion?”. That is why I want to focus on media: if the general public can start having conversations about trans issues, hopefully at some point perceptions would change. And, even if they don’t change, at least people have a general awareness and understanding of the trans community: that’s when we could begin to start working on and having the conversation around policy changes for better health, provision of accurate identity documents for trans people, to address the issue of discrimination in workplaces etc. In my country, there is the misconception that gender identity is the same as sexual orientation, meaning that a trans person is the same as a gay person. And it is that misconception that I want to start addressing.
People are greatly influenced by mass media and, in Zambia, the conversation is mostly about politics and what politicians have done for the day: who will become the next president, what this candidate has just said… this is very sad, most human rights issues are not given the same amount of attention and because of this they end up ignored.
The interesting thing, however, is that in the last year conversations about trans people have been consistent globally. This has indeed had an influence on Zambians speaking about trans people on the radio. Caitlyn Jenner, or the debate in America about trans people accessing public restrooms, have been a topic of conversation on Zambian radio stations, however it is still with the same very ignorant approach and understanding of the issues. Unfortunately, this is still seen as a foreign issue, with very few people listening to the radios understanding what trans identities are.
Another misconception is that of thinking there’s absolutely no way that a trans person can exist in Zambia. Which is obviously not true, and a very sad and ignorant misconception.
What is access to healthcare like for trans people in Zambia?
Access to healthcare for trans people to Zambia can be in two instances: general health care and transitional health care. General health is existent to trans people, however it’s at the sad price of high stigmatization and discrimination. This in turn leaves the community afraid to seek adequate needed health care for fear of rejection, in instances of HIV/AIDS healthcare for example. Many trans people live for a period of time before they can properly have the courage to walk into institutions without fear of rejection and discomfort. I for example am one of them. For a long time I was afraid to go for HIV tests due to the fear of the discrimination I would face because of my appearance and gender expression.
When it comes to transitional health care, it is simply nonexistent in the country context, with a country that doesn’t provide any form of legal recognition of trans people. Transitional health care is nonexistent in the healthcare service systems we have in place.
The interview was conducted by ILGA’s Gender Identity and Gender Expression Programme officer, Zhan Chiam, who spoke with Kakana at the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) 2016 Symposium in Amsterdam.