Changing hearts and minds: LGBTQIA+ economic empowerment in Zambia


Mino Likwasi is the Programmes and Operations Manager for WAFE which is working to economically empower LGBTQIA+ individuals in Zambia

Founded in October 2015, the Women’s Alliance for Equality (WAFE) is an LGBTQIA+-led organisation whose primary purpose is to promote the empowerment of women in Zambia, although it also works for broader LGBTQIA+ rights and inclusion.

WAFE operates in a deeply hostile environment for LGBTQIA+ people. Under Zambia’s colonial-era penal code, for example, anyone convicted of same-sex sexual activity faces imprisonment with the possibility of a life sentence. (In September, the government revealed that the authorities were pursuing 18 cases of “sodomy” across the country.) Church leaders, politicians and the media also regularly condemn the LGBTQIA+ community and fuel dangerous queerphobia.

Despite these significant challenges, WAFE continues to provide direct services to marginalised groups (such as HIV services to men who have sex with men and transgender women), works to eliminate stigma, documents human rights violations and has created safe spaces for lesbian, bi, and queer people. WAFE has also organised annual Pride events which are usually held privately for safety reasons.

“In the early years, we struggled mostly with funding issues, so we could not hire full-time or part-time staff. But we have had an amazing growth period and I feel like we are stable enough now to really move forward with organising LGBTQIA+ programmes,” says Mino Likwasi, WAFE’s Programmes and Operations Manager.

According to Likwasi, the experiences of LGBTQIA+ Zambians tell a story of alienation from society, which exposes them to multi-layered economic exclusion. Their social marginalisation further impacts adequate access to education and employment opportunities.

Members of the LGBTIQ+ community, for example, face the very real possibility of being denied employment or losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. Likwasi also points out that mainstream economic programmes exclude the most marginalised, typically on “moral” grounds.

“WAFE operates a revolving capital fund that provides interest-free business loans to the LGBTQIA+ community.”

In a bid to push back against this economic exclusion, the organisation is working on several innovative economic empowerment, advocacy, training and livelihood development programmes.

These include a savings and loan cooperative that promotes good financial management by cultivating a culture of savings among its members. The initiative offers loans at rates below those offered by the market.

For an LGBTQIA+ entrepreneur to benefit from the loan and savings programmes, they must become a member and invest monthly in the organisation to qualify for future business loans. The profits are shared to support the sustainability of the organisation (60%) and the empowerment of the LGBTQIA+ individuals (40%).

“WAFE also operates a revolving capital fund that provides interest-free business loans to the LGBTQIA+ community in conjunction with training and ongoing entrepreneurial mentorship,” says Likwasi.

“We have supported eight businesses this year with about 65,000 Kwacha (around R64,000). These include entrepreneurs working with mobile money services such as MTN money, Zanaco, Express and some other mobile banking services. Other businesses we support are real estate, organic hair products, chicken farming and microfinance. We also support barber stores, and another is a female disk jockey.”

Partner organisations do the screening and selection of viable businesses to reduce any possible conflict of interest. The names of the selected businesses are then forwarded to WAFE. For the unsuccessful applicants, the organisation provides detailed feedback on why their proposals were rejected so they can better prepare for the next cycle of funding initiatives.

WAFE’s other economic empowerment projects include soft skills building initiatives, such as CV and cover letter writing training, conducted by a human resource professional, to improve the employability of LGBTQIA+ individuals. The organisation also hosts business talks that teach basic entrepreneurial skills and help potential entrepreneurs identify opportunities and potential customers.

“More needs to be done to ensure that diversity is seen as a positive thing by highlighting the benefits of an inclusive society…”

A significant challenge for WAFE is securing financial support to continue its economic empowerment initiatives.

“While we respect the priorities set by donors, there must be room for mutual benefit in funding relationships, such as funders and donors with a particular focus on LGBTQIA+ issues. This includes investors in social enterprises that help the organisation generate non-earmarked revenue and diversify WAFE’s revenue streams in general, away from grant-making,” says Likwasi.

She believes that businesses and multinational corporations also need to financially support LGBTQIA+ inclusion and empowerment by directing a portion of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budgets to groups like WAFE.

While the organisation’s work is undoubtedly making a real difference in many LGBTQIA+ people’s lives, this will remain restricted by the country’s harsh queerphobic realities. Change must come from the Zambian government, says Likwasi.

“The first step is to recognise LGBTIQ+ persons and their existence, which obligates the state to protect and promote the human rights of all, including the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons. The government also needs to introduce an anti-discrimination law that includes discrimination against any group or characteristic.”

And because of years of exclusion and marginalisation, she believes that the state must directly fund LGBTQIA+ organisations “just like other groups” to ensure the economic empowerment of LGBTQIA+ persons.

“The narrative spread by the church and other anti-LGBTQIA+ actors is false, but because they have platforms to spread this misinformation, they shape public perception,” Likwasi says.

“More needs to be done to ensure that diversity is seen as a positive thing by highlighting the benefits of an inclusive society for the country; work also needs to focus on changing people’s hearts and minds, as this is ultimately the most important aspect, regardless of the legal framework.”


This article was made possible with the support of the Other Foundation and is part of a series addressing LGBTIQ+ Economic Empowerment in South Africa and the region. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Other Foundation.

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