Our common regional efforts are crucial part of our survival
Amarildo Fecanji from ERA: While we are getting stronger, we are also facing big challenges. For these reasons, our common regional efforts are crucial part of our survival and progress.
ERA is the direct result of more than 10 years of cooperation and networking between LGBTI organisations from different countries in the Western Balkans and Turkey region.
Amarildo Fecanji is executive co-director at ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey. Members and administrators of ERA are going to be speakers in 5th Symposium against Discrimination. Before the symposium, we talked to Fecanji about their associational works.
Can you introduce yourself and your organization?
My name is Amarildo Fecanji and I am executive co-director at ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey.
Can you talk about your organization’s set up story and its past?
ERA is the direct result of more than 10 years of cooperation and networking between LGBTI organisations from different countries in the Western Balkans and Turkey region. Back in 2014 leading organisations such as Sarajevo Open Centre, Labris, Subversive Front etc. formed a working group. The common understanding was that the countries of our region, along with common historical heritage share also common challenges, opportunities and frameworks of cooperation, including - but not limited to - EU integration. Similarities in human rights standards – legal, social and cultural - are way bigger than the differences. In terms of challenges, organisations in our region share a common background: needs for organisational development, capacity development, alignment of advocacy strategies and efforts, financial sustainability, encouraging and strengthening different initiatives etc. This opportunity became concrete during 2015 when 25 LGBTI organisations - with the support of the European Commission - held a series of strategic and consultative meetings which resulted in the creation of ERA. This is, I believe, a significant step forward for our region and the LGBTI movement and it has now become clear that the maturity achieved at national levels can speed up important processes through more joint planning and coordination. This also requires us as executive team and steering board to be strategic and result driven and allow us not to miss existing and/or upcoming opportunities.
Is there anything you want to talk about a success story or improvement of your organization?
ERA is here to strengthen the national LGBTI movements in levels incomparable to the 1990s or 2000s. As mentioned above, this is only possible thanks to our membership and the momentum created due to the different processes our countries are involved in, the most obvious one being EU integration. In our first year of activities we have worked intensively to secure ERA’s financial sustainability along with its organisational development. We have conducted a very comprehensive organisational capacity assessment with our members which is now at the root of our capacity building programme. Within next year we aim to hold a series of capacity building trainings directly linked to the aspirations and needs of our members. Secondly, we have designed and are currently implementing our advocacy strategy which responds to the objectives and demands of national movements. At this stage, it is important to recognize what can be achieved within the next four years. Where will the LGBTI community stand in terms of access to justice, legal gender recognition, family rights, public attitudes and perceptions?
Our work is intensively focused on all those areas and throughout 2016 several activities have taken place taking us to that direction, such as: public campaigning strategic planning, advocacy strategy consultative meetings, our first regional conference, which brought together 170 activists, government representatives, allies and donors in Pristina, Kosovo etc. The conference was organised in cooperation with our members Centre for Equality and Liberty (CEL) Kosovo and Centre for Social Group Development (CSGD) and brought about important results in terms of inter-governmental cooperation and engagement on LGBTI rights in our region as well as capacity building and strategic planning in many areas of concern for the movement in the region. Finally, in cooperation with UNDP we held 4 national round-tables in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia with strong focus on advocacy and legal priorities.
In 2016 we became implementing partners of the most important research project concerning LGBTI in our region. With the support of the World Bank and in partnership with IPSOS Strategic Marketing and Williams Research Institute the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights survey on LGBTI rights will be replicated in the Western Balkans region. This research will look in detail on the living conditions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people. More specifically it will look into perceptions and responses to homophobia and transphobia, experiences of discrimination, rights awareness, safe environment, violence and harassment and social context. Detailed attention has been paid to the lived experiences and needs of trans and intersex individuals. The research, whose results will be available by the second half of 2017, will be one of the most useful advocacy and awareness building tools for our region. Of course a lot will depend on how we utilise that data.
Moreover, in cooperation with ILGA-Europe we have worked on the annual country progress reports with focus on LGBTI rights. Thanks to our common efforts for the first time this year the report includes recommendations on same-sex unions, legal gender recognition and intersex rights.
These are some of our main achievements for 2016.
How many people are working there and which events are you focusing on?
Our organogram for 2016 includes 6 staff members who are involved in programs, administration, fundraising, research and advocacy and communications. Currently we have been able to employ 4 people and a fifth member will be hired soon. During 2016 our activities have focused on advocacy, fundraising, visibility actions, capacity assessment, strategic planning of our advocacy, campaigning, fundraising, research and capacity building programmes. The most notable event for 2016 was our annual conference in Pristina, Kosovo. The event was organised in partnership with 2 of our members there and the Kosovo Government, and was the biggest advocacy, capacity building and awareness raising event of this year for the entire region. We are happy to announce that next year’s annual conference will take place in Montenegro and that we have already started preparations with our local members.
Can you evaluate LGBTI and the movement’s situation for now in the region?
In general terms the LGBTI movement in the Western Balkans region has received substantial progress. In retrospective we have moved from a community which was almost completely invisible to fully-formed LGBTI movements including organisations and grass-root groups. Legal progress has been achieved in almost all countries and some governments have also approved national action plans and other policies beneficial for LGBTI people.
However, we continue to operate under very difficult circumstances. Spaces for LGBTI organisations are not accessible like they are for other less contested movements or social causes. Governments in our region perceive LGBTI organisations as threats to their image and reputation rather than expert partners with whom collective work can bring about immense change. Financially, our movement depends on international support. Even though LGBTI people are regular taxpayers, they do not receive, at this point, any form of support from national governments which would go towards social awareness, improvement of services and other needs. LGBTI organisations have huge difficulties in helping the community with legal aid, psycho-social counselling and other important services. Many grass root groups get formed but quickly disintegrate because of unavailable resources or difficulty to acquire funds from regular donors. Within the LGBTI spectrum, LBT women, bisexual, trans and intersex people are mostly invisible. Thıs makes organisations quite weak in terms of how they support the community, advocate for their rights and organise their work. Homophobic and transphobic prejudices remain high even though studies reveal progress in terms of improved perceptions. In this case visibility is key. Members of the general population who know LGBTI people tend to be more open and friendly. Violence, remains a threat and a big concern. Young LGBT people, trans women, activists and LGBTI people belonging to ethnic, religious and other minorities are even more exposed to threats of violence, harassment and socio-economic marginalisation. Efforts on education, health services and economic empowerment remain very low. Many members of society in the best case perceive LGBTI rights as a trivial issue and in the worst case as a threat to national identity and society as a whole. The road to winning hearts and minds is long and bumpy.
However, the movement is vibrant, and work is intense with all stakeholders who have a role in advancing our rights. What is still missing is a mainstreaming of LGBTI rights at both national and local levels, equal access to government ministries, political participation and representation, effective implementation of existing laws, higher political willingness to make legal changes in terms of family rights and gender identity and improved performance to effectively address hate crime, hate speech and homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
While we are getting stronger, we are also facing big challenges. For these reasons, our common regional efforts are crucial part of our survival and progress.
What is the approximate number of LGBT organizations? How do they vary? Is there anything you want to talk about LGBT organizations?
By October 2016 our membership grew to 40 member organisations which vary from grassroots informal groups to strong advocacy and policy oriented organisations. Our members work with families of LGBTI people, victims of hate crime, youth, people living with HIV/AIDS, central and local governments, parliaments, media, the international community etc. They engage in advocacy, community empowerment, research, campaigns and visibility activities. They are the base, heart and inspiration of ERA’s work. Many organisations represent the best models of activism and representation. Empowerment of less represented groups is also taking place. For example, Queer Montenegro has promoted and enabled the creation of two independent groups within the organisation: one focuses on LBT women rights and the other on trans rights. Both groups could potentially become independent organisations on their own. LGBT United in Tetovo is an excellent example of intersectionality at work. In Albania, the LGBTI Shelter “Streha” is now sharing its expertise with organisations from Kosovo and Macedonia which want to open LGBTI shelters as well. In Serbia, the organisation Da Se Zna! was recently established as a need to address hate crimes more strategically and conretely. In Bosnia & Herzegovina CURE Foundation is an example of a feminist organisation at work. In Croatia, a new organisation is working with and for parents of trans children. Many other organisations are working under different objectives and interests and this is something that we see as inspiring, empowering and promising for our future. To get to know all our members and their incredible work I invite your readers to check our webpage www.lgbti-era.org.
One of our main goals for the near future is to assist and empower grass roots initiatives all across the Western Balkans and Turkey region which we believe will bring about huge changes in the movement.
Our members in Turkey are KAOS GL, Pembe Hayat, SPoD, Listag, Red Umbrella and Istanbul Pride. We invite all other LGBTI organisations active in Turkey to join our association as full members so that we can better coordinate our work and efforts.
In conclusion I want to express my solidarity, respect and admiration for LGBTI activists in Turkey. We follow with great concern all events taking place in the country and we hope that Turkish society will find its strength, energy and inspiration to resist and protect its democracy, freedom and long held values. We are working closely with our membership in Turkey in order to effectively address the needs and concerns specific to the country and identify ways how to effectively bring about change. A lot remains to be done in the near future on this topic as well.
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