Take Five: “If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation”
Author: Elisabeth Dotter
Matcha Phorn-in is the Executive Director of Sangsan Anakot Yaowachon, a civil society organization working with young people from marginalized communities, many of whom are indigenous, in disaster-prone Thai villages at the border with Myanmar. Phorn-in is from an ethnic minority and identifies as a lesbian feminist human-rights defender. Her organization supports women to become leaders and raise their communities' awareness regarding human rights, gender equality, and issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).
With UN Women and its partners, Asia-Pacific Transgender Network, APCOM, ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, Edge Effect, and International Planned Parenthood Federation, Phorn-in supported the organization of the first Pride in the Humanitarian System consultation in June 2018, which brought together civil society organizations working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) rights along with humanitarian actors to discuss integrating diverse SOGIESC perspectives in humanitarian crisis prevention and response.
We know that disasters exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities; what do these vulnerabilities look like in the context where you work?
In the villages where I work in northern Thailand, at the border with Myanmar, the conflict between ethnic minorities and the military has been going on for more than 30 years, and a lot of people are suffering from both sides. The conflict has left a lot of people stateless and undocumented—they are not recognized as citizens, and their illegal status de facto excludes them from the society. The law bars them from travelling, working and owning land. In this context, women and girls are particularly vulnerable, because they suffer from a patriarchal society that oppresses them, especially if they are young, indigenous, lesbian, bisexual and queer.
Why is it important to take sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) perspectives into account in your work?
Communities are diverse, and lot of young people in the villages where we work are gender non-conforming, and numerous women and girls are bisexual and lesbian, but societies don't allow them to openly live according to their identity. Whenever we try to address the specific needs of lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ) women, nobody listens. Society does not want to hear about women's sexuality and experience. When a woman comes out as a lesbian, she often faces harassment, violence and rape. In most cases, survivors are unable to get justice, because the perpetrators often belong to their close environment, a relative or a family member. The practice of forced marriage of lesbian and bisexual women by their families is very common in Thailand, and South-East Asia in general. Yet, we don’t talk about that. Even within the broader LGBTIQ movement, lesbians, bisexual and queer women’s voices tend to be marginalized.
What challenges do lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women specifically face during disasters?
A lot of cultures and societies blame people of diverse SOGIESC for "causing" disasters because their sexual orientation and expressions are seen as sins that make the gods angry and unleash natural disasters. Thus, persons of diverse SOGIESC, including lesbians, bisexual and queer women become targets of direct violence, physical and verbal, and their diverse needs are forgotten in the aftermath of disasters. If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation. Humanitarian programmes tend to be heteronormative and can reinforce the patriarchal structure of society if they do not take into account sexual and gender diversities. For instance, if you are a woman and have a husband and children, you get access to relief structures as a family. But if you are a lesbian couple, you don't get recognized as a family, and are deprived from such assistance.
In disaster settings, women are a lot more vulnerable to gender-based violence, harassment and rape, and that vulnerability is aggravated for lesbian and bisexual women. They are not recognized as part of the village community and not accepted as equals. So not only are they discriminated based on their gender, they are also harassed on the basis of their sexual orientation, and they don't have any mechanisms in place to protect them.
Last June, you supported organization of the first regional consultation on persons of diverse SOGIESC in humanitarian settings, "Pride in the Humanitarian System." Why was it important to bring persons of diverse SOGIESC organizations together with humanitarian actors?
The villages where I work often face landslides, floods and fires. Every year, some people die, and survivors are left traumatized. I listen to their stories again and again, but I never had the knowledge or experience to properly help them in any way. The "Pride in the Humanitarian System" consultation opened a door to change that. It was unique because it allowed community members and humanitarian actors, as well as government representatives and donors, to meet and discuss this issue together for the first time. I had never experienced any consultation like this, where all the complexities, the multiple identities and the barriers that the people I work with are facing, could be addressed. No topic, and no one was left behind in the conversation.
At the consultation, community members really got the chance to talk about their issues and have their voices heard. We were able to strongly affirm what we needed and what we wanted from the humanitarian system. A lot of humanitarian actors who sometimes never heard of these issues left with a better understanding on diverse SOGIESC issues. The conclusions of the consultation were summarized in a "Call to action", that takes on a holistic approach in the recommendations provided by community members, taking into account intersectional vulnerabilities, including a feminist perspective. The goal is to see how we can all move forward together and make these issues a priority in many countries.
What role can feminist lesbian, bisexual and queer activists play in creating a more inclusive humanitarian system?
Humanitarian actors are often not properly trained to understand and address our issues as communities of people with diverse SOGIESC. Humanitarian programmes are rarely even gender-sensitive and mainstreaming of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions and sex characteristics is never mentioned. If humanitarian actors can't recognize persons of diverse SOGIESC identities and what their problems are, they can't help them in crisis. That’s why we want to share our knowledge, to train them on these issues while they train us in humanitarian action.
As feminist activists, we also provide a critical reflection on the LGBTIQ movement itself, because it sometimes lacks a holistic approach. The feminist perspective and fight against patriarchal oppression needs to be addressed as an inherent part of the question of creating an inclusive humanitarian system. After participating in the Pride in the Humanitarian System consultation, a lot of lesbian, bisexual and queer women who are usually left behind, came away feeling empowered to engage and facilitate change. We benefited from the discussions at the consultation, and now we come back home to our community with a strong purpose, new tools, and a new commitment.