LGBTI refugee welcomes opportunity for new beginnings in South Africa

With support from UNHCR partner JRS, living as an openly gay refugee in South Africa doesn't seem so daunting


Zimbabwean refugee Nomsa Ndlovu* (left) is living her life positively, confidently and with a clarity she could not have acquired, had she not come to terms with my sexuality and the resulting determination to be true to herself. She lives with her South African partner, Mpumi Dlamini.*  © UNHCR/Pumla Rulashe

Johannesburg, South Africa - For several years the suffocating pressure Nomsa Ndlovu* felt keeping her sexual orientation a secret weighed heavily on her shoulders.

Virulent rumours had started to swirl about in her community and the impact these would have on her family and elderly mother in particular, informed her decision to flee her native Zimbabwe in 2004, for neighbouring South Africa.

“Years before I left home,” she explains, “I tried to conform to the cultural norms and standards prescribed for men and women, so as not to stigmatize and outcast my family because of my sexual orientation, but I failed.” 

Ndlovu, like girls her age ‘let’ herself fall pregnant so that suspicion about sexuality would be contained. Two children later however, she knew that she was fighting a losing battle and one whose outcome she had to come to terms with.

“Coming to South Africa was one step in that direction,” she says.

In spite of her relocation to a country, whose Consitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and the first and to date, only African country to legalise same sex marriage, Ndlovu continued to live amongst and in the familiarity of Zimbabwe’s refugee community prolonging her inability and agony to live openly as a lesbian.

“I continued to fool myself and the men I had relationships with knowing full well that my heart wasn’t in what I was doing.”

Ndlovu endured 10 long years fearful of revealing her secret, but knowing in the back of her mind that sooner than later, it had to be revealed.

It was in 2014, when she was studying journalism at a college in Johannesburg, that Ndlovu took the momentous step that would change her life for the better. The pursuit of the truth, the first principle underpinning the importance of journalism, was the key that helped her cross the barrier that would steer her life in the direction she could only dream of, over the years.

Through her daughter, who is also lesbian, Ndlovu met her life partner, Mpumi Dlamini* in November 2014.

With the support of her South African partner, Ndlovu’s acceptance of herself and the confidence that grew out of this decision encouraged her to grow her circle of friends not only amongst South Africans but within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, which has support groups.

It is through an LGBTI support group on Whatsapp Messenger that she met James Obi, a volunteer HIV/AIDS counsellor, who with the support of UNHCR’s social assistance NGO partner, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), set up a test and treat programme in the office, on 01 February 2017.  

In September 2016, South Africa became one of the world’s first countries to begin rolling out post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) under the universal ‘test and treat’ (UTT) programme, which provides antiretroviral medicine (ARV) irrespective of one’s CD4 count to any HIV positive person.

Obi had advertised the services offered at the test and treat programme he is running at JRS, within the LGBTI support group Ndlovu is a member of.

After speaking to her partner about testing for HIV, Ndlovu’s new found confidence and desire to live her life true to herself and honest in her relationship with Dlamini and those around her, decided to take up the offer of an HIV test.

“We were tested as a couple at JRS,” says Ndlovu, “after Obi had made the pre and post counselling process comfortable and relaxed.”

“When my test results came up positive and my partner’s negative, I couldn’t have been in a better environment for the support I need.”

JRS has over many years not only provided assistance to refugees   with specific needs through financial support and other resources provided by UNHCR, but it has developed a reputation in the refugee community for being one of the few “safe spaces” refugees seek for succour and solace.

“Since owning up to my sexual orientation,” says Ndlovu “I have increasingly come to realise how South Africa and JRS through UNHCR, have given me and other LGBTI refugees the time, the space and resources to be who we are, to talk about our lives, the problems and dilemmas we face, and the solutions we can arrive at, because this would not be possible in the countries we have come from.”

Given their past persecution experiences in the countries of origin and the negative social attitudes they face within the communities they live, LGBTI refugees are recognised in UNHCR programmes as a group with specific needs and are therefore prioritised for services and social assistance, including short-term food provision, accommodation and basic needs support, among others. The agency has also received earmarked HIV funding. Additional support will be provided to LGBTI refugees, which UNHCR deems a particular population group in need of support, as well as young women and persons of concern engaging in, or are at-risk of engaging in transactional sex. UNHCR’s outreach programmes targeting the identification of persons with specific needs, who are referred to relevant organisations since 2016, reached over 17,500 persons of concern. 

 “For UNHCR,” says Charlotte Ridung, UNHCR’s Senior Operations Manager for the South Africa operation, “risks which include the threat of arrest and detention, refoulement, harassment, exploitation, discrimination, as well as heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), HIV-AIDS, human smuggling and trafficking, are important not only to protect refugees from, but to ensure that members of particular social groups, like the LGBTI community, receive the same quality of protection and assistance that all refugees are entitled to.”

“We consider it essential for host states and the international community to continue their efforts to ensure that all refugees, including those in the LGBTI community, are able to exercise all the rights to which they are entitled, and the right not to be subjected to cruel or degrading treatment or punishment, because of their sexual orientation.”

“To this end, we applaud the South African government for the strides it has taken to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and which has given refugees who are LGBTI, the assurance that they can live productively and without harassment in their country of asylum.”

Buoyed by the support she has legally and knowing her HIV status, Ndlovu is considering training to become an HIV/AIDS counsellor as part of JRS’s test and treat programme, an initiative UNHCR encourages, as it enables appropriately qualified refugee volunteers to advise their compatriots and fellow exiles in relation to issues such as health, education, SGBV and HIV/AIDS.

“For a very long time, I was unhappy with my lot in life but today, I am strong, I am healthy, I am free to associate with whomever I want and am not considered an oddity by most of the general public,” Ndlovu beams.

For Johan Viljoen, JRS South Africa Country Director Ndlovu’s new outlook on life is to be celebrated.

“With the physical space, emotional and psychological support provided by JRS, we hope that more LGBTI refugees will feel confident to utilise our services because they are at their disposal.”

In spite of their HIV test results, Ndlovu and Dlamini are together for the long haul.

“Knowing your HIV status means getting to know who you are and the direction you want your life to take, irrespective of whether the result is positive or negative,” says Ndlovu. “I am living my life positively, confidently and with a clarity I could not have acquired, had I not come to terms with my sexuality, my HIV status and the resulting determination to be true to myself and my loved ones.”

“I am ready to help other LGBTI refugees come to this realisation, too.” 

*Names changed to protect their identity.