W4GF speaks to Leigh Ann van der Merwe from Social, Health and Empowerment during AIDS 2016

Women4GlobalFund spoke with a few colleagues at the end of AIDS 2016 about their thoughts around how the conference had addressed gender equality, what more needed to be done and the key issues they take away from the conference.

Leigh Ann van der Merwe (Social, Health and Empowerment, South Africa)

LAHow do you feel the conference addressed gender equality?
I feel hopeful as this conference has had a larger participation of transgender women and there has been more inclusivity of our community but we still have a long way to go. More could have been done but I am positive that finally transgender women have been seen as separate to men who have sex with men (MSM) and that discussions and interventions regarding transgender women are being grounded in gender equality. This is happening in the research and needs to happen more in our advocacy. Research is often left static and does not translate into programming and it is only as good if it changes practice and becomes real to the populations on which data is collected. We also need to be accountable with people’s data and stories and we need to feedback to the communities on which we conduct research.

What more needs to be done?
Generally we want to see inclusion of transgender rights as these are nuanced and these nuances shape our understanding of risk to HIV and violence. Very few activists and organisations are conscious of the link between HIV and violence and sometimes, even governments impose violence when for example they do not give transgender women legal gender recognition. I have seen the adverse effect thereof in transgender women populations. Essentially, it disrupts access to treatment, care and support when someone is “forced” to use a name and gender with which they do not resonate. In terms of the Global Fund they still have a lot to learn about transgender issues and about what needs to happen at the country level. The Global Fund secretariat is open to learning but there is a long way to go and to support countries in having this same openness and ensuring that we hold governments accountable to programmes for key populations and transgender women.

What’s your next step when you go home?
We need to create advocacy and talk about HIV, violence and all other intersections everywhere especially outside of this conference. Our advocacy sometimes stagnates around the populations that we serve with our programs; instead we should be out there talking to the people who have never come in contact with our populations to raise awareness. I know that in my context we need more spaces to dialogue with religious and traditional leaders since being transgender is described as unAfrican or unholy, and even unnatural. There is a lot of research in various spaces but it is our responsibility to make this real for our community and ensure that this positively impacts the lives of transgender women. We have a long way to go to integrate with the feminist movement but many women are at least able to stop and listen and I feel positive and optimistic about this. The health considerations of transgender women are a feminist issue and women’s issues are also severely under researched.

What did you learn in this conference?
I went to many sessions on research that involves transgender women at different levels and I heard the involvement of transgender women in research and programmatic interventions reiterated throughout this conference. Trans women should be central to any programmatic interventions and they should drive the research agenda on any research focused on them as a population. I have also learnt that we can maximise impact when we collaborate with women in all their diversity. Exclusion, belittling and ignoring women is not unique to trans women, it is a common issue among women in all our diversity and if we are strategic, we know that we should unite to address these issues in all of our diversity as women.

Leigh Ann van der Merwe is a coloured transgender woman born and bred in Ugie in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Growing up knowing that she did not quite fit into the gender assigned to her at birth, she struggled finding her place in a very traditional and patriarchal society. Leigh Ann’s own experiences of violence and discrimination prompted her to establish Social, Health and Empowerment, a feminist collective of transgender women working in Southern and East Africa. Leigh Ann has spoken on local, regional and international platforms to address the issues affecting transgender women. She considers herself a queer “intersectional” feminist whose analysis is seeking to understand how factors such as race, class and the economy influences one’s own identity. She holds a certificate in community journalism from UNISA and is currently registered in the School of Public Health Postgraduate Program at the University of the Western Cape. Leigh Ann is passionate about research and has published a paper on trans feminism in the New Voices of Psychology

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