Sexual and Gender Based Violence and the Reality of LBQ Womxn in Western Kenya
By Becky Odhiambo and Heather Tucker—
In global feminist discussions around sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), there's a group that often gets left out of the conversation: LBQ womxn —a shorthand used to refer to a diverse group of people assigned female at birth, representing diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions and identities. This includes lesbian, bisexual, queer, non-binary, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals.
This invisibility is particularly concerning in sub-Saharan Africa, where additional stigmas driven by cultural, institutional, and historical forces come together to create a largely anti-LBQ environment. Additionally, laws inherited through the British colonial occupation criminalize same-sex practices and further bolster heteronormative and patriarchal cultures within the country. This has created a context in which sexual and gender minority people regularly experience human rights violations, including physical assault from mobs and vigilantes, rape and sexual assault by police, and institutional barriers to housing, education, and employment.
The rates of these abuses, however, are not experienced equally: compared to gay and bisexual cis-gender men in Kenya, LBQ womxn are at a particularly heightened risk for human rights violations and disparities in health outcomes. Despite the data, their suffering is frequently doubly invisible: both in funding and intervention efforts aimed at LGBT groups, as well as within mainstream SGBV interventions. The latter which often assume heterosexual, gender conforming cis-gender women are the target population while using ‘one size fits all’ approaches, often excluding or ignoring the lived experiences of LBQ womxn. Additionally, research conducted to quantify and define challenges for the East Africa region often does not include metrics to better understand the intersecting realities of this group of people. Unfortunately, the inclusion of this group and the understanding of the intersectional oppression experienced by this group can add additional insights to the ways in which sexual and gender based violence exists in the first place, and ways to create preventative solutions.
In direct response to these challenges, a new research effort is looking to change the narrative. Launched in 2021, the Empowerment for Us By Us (E4UBU) research project aims to develop policies, programs, and services aimed at promoting health equity among female born LBQ womxn in Kenya (and elsewhere in subSaharan Africa) by understanding cultural conceptualizations of empowerment among LBQ womxn in Western Kenya. Funded by the Center for Global Health Equity, the project uses feminist participatory mixed methods to carry out research, and was developed between faculty and staff at the University of Michigan’s School of Public health alongside two Kenyan advocacy organizations: the Western Kenyan LBQT Feminist Forum (WKLFF), the Homa Bay LBQT Women Feminist Network (HBL).
The E4UBU team is conducting feminist participatory research in Western Kenya to explore themes of empowerment and disempowerment among LGB womxn in the country. Preliminary findings from the project have been eye-opening, and point towards significantly high rates of SGBV among LBQ womxn, with many also experiencing significant online violence. The data—gathered from interviews and a survey with LGB womxn aged 19-60 in Kisumu, Kenya— reveals a troubling landscape:
38% of respondents reported experiencing anti-SGM violence
37% of respondents reported forced sexual encounters with men
44% of respondents reported experiencing intimate partner violence
The prevalence of HIV among LBQ womxn in Western Kenya is more than double the national average
But, emphasizes Becky Odhiambo, programs director of the Western Kenya LBQT Feminist Forum and co-lead researcher on the project, it’s easy to forget why this kind of surveying work matters: "Our research is not just about statistics; it's about giving a voice to those who have been forced into silence. Each data point represents a life, a story, and a call for change. We're here to amplify the voices of LBQ womxn in the fight against gender-based violence, helping them claim the dignity and respect they deserve."
The work being done by the E4UBU research team holds profound implications for global health, human rights, and social justice. The research findings underscore the urgent need for targeted interventions and policies to support LBQ womxn in sub-Saharan Africa while also finding solutions to ending the multi-faceted forms of violence they face. The insights gleaned from SGBV experienced by this population can also provide helpful information about societal norms and the origins of SGBV, leading to solutions for this issue for all those who experience this form of violence in Kenya. By highlighting the struggles of LBQ womxn, and advocating for change, we can work towards a reality in which all those who identify as women, regardless of their sexual or gender identity and expression, can live free from violence and discrimination.