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Why are we ignoring the sexual health of women who have sex with women?

Little attention is given to issues such as health, or consent and sexual violence, leaving women vulnerable and at risk

When funders and activists consider those who need the most attention in tackling issues of health and high risk, one group, time and again, is being left out women who have sex with women (WSW). People have different ideas about WSW many of these ideas are strange, and most of them are wrong.

The general view, especially as far as rights are concerned, does not take into account the overlapping identities of these women. It seems to be little understood how WSW including bisexual and transgender women who identify as lesbian or bisexual can be affected by issues such as access to abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV and Aids. And there is little consideration about more pervasive issues such as consent and sexual violence within the community itself.

That societys imagination about WSW runs away with them is evident everywhere from the lesbian section in porn sites to inappropriate government interventions. Recently in Kenya, an all-girl speed-dating event was shut down by the Kenya Film Classification Board after its chief executive officer, Ezekiel Mutua, labelled the event a lesbian orgy on Facebook.

But misunderstandings also abound among women who have sex with women. After running a series on safe sex and pleasure at the HolaAfrica! hub, which I co-founded, it became clear to me that safe sex is rarely practised by the women. It also emerged that using dental dams (when one can actually find them) or discussing and engaging with issues of consent was rare.

This is despite the fact that there are instances of sexual assault within the queer female community, possible exposure to a number of STIs, and that sexuality is fluid and some women will still sleep with men. Sex between two women can put them at risk of contracting the human papilloma virus, chlamydia and gonorrhoea as well as the herpes simplex virus, some strains of which are becoming immune to treatment, according to the World Health Organisation.

According to a recent study, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana were reported as having a 9.6% rate of self-reported HIV infections among WSW. Some participants spoke of being surprised they could get infected by female partners.

Women who have sex with women are often left out of the safe sex narrative, which means they are frequently excluded from the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda. In Africa, social and cultural obstacles as well as government policies make it extremely difficult for WSW to speak to health practitioners about sex, and to access dental dams and other means of safe sex.

Fortunately, some spaces seek to subvert these stereotypes and to address the proliferation of often incorrect assumptions.

Juicy Pink Box creates queer feminist porn depicting sex between two women. HolaAfrica! has produced a safe sex and pleasure manual entitled: Please Her, which tackles everything to do with safe sex between women, including using and caring for sex toys and matters of consent. HolaAfrica! also held a workshop that discussed topics including the various benefits of clingfilm outside of making sandwiches.

Organisations such as Afra Kenya also hold events and meetings that cover issues relating to sex between women.

The silence surrounding women who have sex with women leaves people vulnerable and at risk, and unable to fully realise their health and bodily rights. Queer women in Africa have a right to know how to stay healthy. WSW need to be a part of the sex and reproductive health and rights conversation.

Despite not being as high risk as other groups, these women are still at risk, and and to leave them out of the conversation is to ignore a widespread and persistent problem.

Tiffany Mugo is a media consultant and writer, and co-founder of HolaAfrica!

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/09/why-are-we-ignoring-the-sexual-health-of-women-who-have-sex-with-women