How to meet the needs of the LGBTI community in lockdown

Written by Samuel Matsikure, GALZ – An Association of LGBTI People in Zimbabwe

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your work has highlighted these learnings:

Homosexual behaviour is illegal in Zimbabwe, and members of the LGBTI community enjoy no legal protections of their rights. Whilst there is a level of informal tolerance in larger cities, prejudice and persecution is still significant country-wide. Additional challenges from the country’s COVID-19 lockdown include: incarceration with unsupportive families; being unable to access social support, medication and services; being stranded from partners and support because of migration for work; along with the common problems of hunger and income deprivation.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

In Zimbabwe, some emergency relief requires registration with Social Welfare or a particular political group. However, like some other vulnerable communities, LGBTI individuals are often excluded from access to emergency food and funding because of ‘invisibility’; that is, they often do not register with various authorities, for privacy and safety reasons.  

Interruption of access to essential medication for those living with HIV is another critical health issue in this community. 

Tensions in households are causing increased mental distress and violence; before lockdown many LGBTI individuals would spend much of their time away from home because of intolerant family attitudes, but now there is no respite.

Would you like to tell us more about the challenges you saw advocates facing in this situation?

Humans will always seek and find intimacy! We still receive requests for contraception, lubricants and condoms, HIV and STI tests and treatment. Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services are essential services.

We are working harder and longer than we did before. The needs of our community are around the clock, and arranging transport and relaying information often requires a lot of back and forth; we are committed to ensuring there is counselling support available 24/7.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

We are an advocacy and support organisation, but in order to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19 we swiftly adapted our work to meet the emerging needs of our client group.

A major concern was hunger among our member communities due to loss of income. We launched a fundraising strategy to support food packages and nutritional support for people living with HIV (PLHIV) and those in dire need of food. This was coordinated through four LGBTIQ organisations to avoid duplication and double claims by community members.

We moved our counselling and support online and created tailored WhatsApp groups for themes and groups, such as Elderly Women, or Mental Health, which have been very popular and successful.

An operational plan was developed to provide outreach work and support to communities during home visits and transporting them to health facilities for services. We coordinated with other civil society organisations, the Ministry of Health and Childcare as well as key population groups to improve mobilisation and linkage to services using the government guidelines on HIV and SRH service delivery.

We also have kept running our clinic in an urban centre (following COVID-19 safety guidelines), but also visit communities where necessary. 

Three other drop-in centres in three cities are working with partners to provide mobile services and/or transport to medical centres, and to coordinate food packages to PLHIV.  

We are training Health Care Workers in how to support LGBTI people and their needs. 

To do all of this, we obtained letters of support from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies so that we can get around more easily given current restrictions.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

  • The focused WhatsApp groups have been hugely successful, and we will look to continue these.
  • The need to ensure service delivery exists at the community level.
  • How interlinked health and livelihoods are; the majority of people work in the informal sector and are suddenly without income.
  • The importance of working with families. We will expand our work around inclusion and empowerment.
  • The need to support those living alone or not online, pandemic or not.
  • The effectiveness of working in partnership.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • There is no one right way to meet needs and deliver services. Try different things and see what works in which circumstances; keep coming back to rethink.
  • Make sure information and communication flow with staff is strong and consistent.
  • Partner with other organisations to fill gaps and meet needs.
  • Look for grants to support nutrition for PLHIV and meet community demands for food packages through fundraising, donations and from well-wishers.

Samuel Matsikure, GALZ – An Association of LGBTI People in Zimbabwe

Samuel Matsikure is Programmes Manager at GALZ – An Association of LGBTI People in Zimbabwe, with expertise in LGBTI programming, management and research. Originally a teacher, he first joined GALZ to provide counselling and other services to LGBTI community members and families. Sam holds diplomas in Higher Education and Family Therapy, a degree in Sociology and Gender Development and is studying for a masters in Human Rights, Peace and Development with Africa University. He is a Columbia University Human Rights Advocacy Program Fellow.