Grand Challenges Canada

Mental health challenges contribute to over 10% of the global disease burden, three-quarters of which occurs in low- and middle-income countries. LGBTQIA+ youth are more than twice as likely to face mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse, than their heterosexual counterparts.

Recently, four GCC-funded innovators from the Global Mental Health portfolio spoke to the GCC team about their work providing mental health and support services for LGBTQIA+ youth in their communities. The Raahat Project, SiyaFanaFana (SameSame), The Sexual Rights Center of Zimbabwe, and Out LGBT Wellbeing are helping to uplift effective LGBTQ+-focused innovators globally to help build a world without stigma.

The Raahat Project

“Raahat” translates to “relief” in Hindustani; thus, the Raahat Project aims to provide relief by supporting the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ youth in India. The Raahat Project’s goal is to address a lack of mental health support and conservative attitudes in educational institutions by working in four top universities to develop mental health awareness and a self-care program for queer-identifying young people.

The speaker, Chapal Mehra, gave an overview of the current landscape of queer acceptance in India/South Asia, highlighting that despite the historical acceptance and presence of same-sex love and diverse identities, homophobia is still widespread, notably due to the lingering impact of colonialism. Despite this hostile landscape, important queer activism has resulted in some forms of legal acceptance. However, Mehra emphasizes that there is still work to be done. Queer people in India often face high rates of mental and physical health issues, and elevated levels of community violence and backlash. For example, even recently when running queer mental health workshops in universities, their team was asked not to put up a pride flag.

Folks at the Raahat Project are resolute in their commitment to confronting mental health challenges, and the stigma around queerness in India. Their goals go beyond mental health support, focusing on “creating a space where queer individuals can thrive, where experiences are acknowledged, and where they can find solace and strength in community support.”

Learn more about the Raahat Project here:

OUT LGBT Wellbeing

OUT LGBT Wellbeing is South Africa’s second oldest LGBTQIA+ organization. Founded in 1994, they do a variety of work related to queer advocacy and policy change, primarily providing HIV-related services, supporting victims of hate crimes, and increasing the accessibility of mental health support at the community level through family education. Their innovative support programs leverage technological innovation to help reach LGBTQIA+ people in need of support.

OUT LGBT Wellbeing also runs a mental health program, supported by GCC entitled ‘The Bazwa Youth Mental Health Project’, which provides accessible support to LGBT youth using WhatsApp. Through this program, youth can access a variety of support resources, like a virtual mentor, an online support group, counselling by clinical psychologists through the app, and online courses to help assist with employment opportunities.

Learn more about OUT LGBT’s work here:

SameSame and The Sexual Rights Center

Speakers Jonathan from SameSame, and Moja from The Sexual Rights Center of Zimbabwe, spoke about their newly created organizational partnership and planned priorities for the future.

SameSame, also known as SiyaFanaFana, is a South Africa-based organization created by queer product designers, software engineers and clinicians, which uses tech-based solutions to address mental health challenges faced by young, queer people. The Sexual Rights Center in Zimbabwe was founded in 2007, and aims to protect, empower, and provide access for individuals facing marginalization based on their sexual orientation and reproductive health and rights.

Though these two organizations are pioneering a key partnership, they operate in dramatically different contexts. Both South Africa and Zimbabwe share a history of colonialism and inherited oppressive laws against LGBTQIA+ people and sexual minorities, which has shaped the challenges faced by queer folks, and their resistance and advocacy against these oppressive structures.

Through the tireless advocacy of queer individuals fighting for their human rights, South Africa became the first country in the world to constitutionally ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. In Zimbabwe however, inherited criminal provisions against LGBTQI+ people were strongly upheld by legislators. This legacy still impacts queer people today, and pride celebrations are often met with opposition and violence, which has forced the movement underground. Despite this hostile environment, clandestine pride events still provide space for LGBTQIA+ individuals to express themselves and find a sense of community.

Though early in their partnership, SiyaFanaFana and The Sexual Rights Center of Zimbabwe plan to implement a variety of mental health and educational support systems for queer youth in South Africa and Zimbabwe to help reduce the challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ people in both contexts. Using WhatsApp, they aim to provide a safe and confidential space for individuals to seek support, share experiences, and access relevant resources. Going forward, they hope to use digital solutions to provide peer support and crisis intervention for queer youth struggling with mental health challenges

Sunflower, a young LGBTQIA+ individual supported by SiyaFanaFana’s work talked about the importance of protecting a sense of community and support within the LGBTQIA+ community. “Being rejected by society, by the community, by educational institutions, and workplaces, it becomes even more crucial for me to embrace my existence with unapologetic pride. When I am with these people, I feel safe, at home, loved, appreciated, and seen. I find validation within myself by seeing my reflection in them.”

Learn more about SiyaFanaFana (SameSame) here:

Learn more about the Sexual Rights Center of Zimbabwe here:

How can funders best support LGBTQIA+ innovators?

Chapal Mehra from the Raahat Project identified some of the best ways that funders can support innovators doing key LGBTQIA+ advocacy and mental health work on the ground:

Financial Assistance: funders can bolster available resources, helping to expand innovators’ initiatives and capacity.

Network building: funders can facilitate connections for innovators by leveraging their own networks of other stakeholders in the LGBTQIA+ mental health field. Collaborations and resource-sharing can ultimately strengthen the project’s overall impact.

Policy Advocacy: funders can support innovators’ advocacy efforts by providing resources to engage in lobbying and policy dialogue

Research and Evaluation: supporting innovators’ research and program evaluation can contribute to creating a solid evidence base. These statistics can support studies on the mental health needs of queer individuals and generate data-driven insights to inform future strategies.

Capacity building: funders should support the capacity of community leaders and local professionals to lead and be involved in initiatives, for example, by investing in workshops and training programs. Expanding capacity building can empower individuals and communities to be change agents and foster long-term sustainability.

Noting the work that can also be done to support innovators, Sunflower emphasizes “the importance of reevaluating funding models to better support communities. It should extend beyond merely granting funds to organizations and focus on empowering actual community members.”