A report released Thursday by a coalition of four human rights groups highlights that Cameroon LGBT citizens are victims of institutionalized homophobia, intimidation and violence at the hands of their communities, politicians and police.
Human rights groups, including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, have taken this opportunity to again urge Cameroon’s government to decriminalize consensual same-sex relations and take immediate action to curb violence against Cameroon’s LGBT population.
The government should take urgent action to decriminalize such consensual conduct and to ensure the full human rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, said Alternatives-Cameroun, l’Association pour la défense des droits des homosexuels, Human Rights Watch, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
The 62-page report, “Criminalizing Identities: Rights Abuses in Cameroon Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” details how the government uses article 347 bis of the Penal Code to deny basic rights to people perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). The report describes arrests, beatings by the police, abuses in prison, and a homophobic atmosphere that encourages shunning and abuse in the community. The consequence is that people are not punished for a specific outlawed practice, but for a homosexual identity, the groups said.
“The poor and the young, who often have no way to get legal assistance, suffer the most from Cameroon’s abusive atmosphere,” said Steave Nemande, president of Alternatives-Cameroun. “Even after they get out of jail, families and friends often reject them. They are denied education, jobs, even a place to live. Their lives are ruined.”
The report, based on 45 interviews with victims, documents abuse by police, including beatings on the victims’ bodies and even the soles of their feet. Prison guards ignore abuses by other prisoners, including beatings, rapes, and urinating and defecating on the victims’ possessions.
Those arrested under article 347 bis are routinely held without charge in excess of the minimum time allowed by Cameroonian law, the groups found. Judges may sentence them to prison time without credible evidence that they engaged in a homosexual act. Even when judges have dismissed charges, prosecutors have sometimes charged the accused again before they could be freed.
Women Suffer Under Gender Binary
It is not just LGBT citizens that are suffering under this climate of violence. The report suggests that women who do not fit typical gender stereotypes or appear “feminine enough” are branded deviants and can be ostracized by family members and their communities, while women who are even just suspected of having had a same-sex relationship are particularly vulnerable to sexual assaults and rape. If those women have families already, they may find their children removed from their care with little to no legal recourse because of potential unequal treatment from the legal system.
Media Creates Culture of Persecution
Creating buzz words such as “homocraty” to vilify LGBTs, the report details how Cameroon’s newspapers have launched anti-gay campaigns, outing people the media claims are LGBT while pedaling stories about how rich and power-hungry homosexuals are out to convert the innocent and seize control of the nation.
Human Rights Abuses Put Health at Risk
The report also warns that institutionalized homophobia may be contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region:
The criminalization of same-sex activities has serious health consequences, the groups said. Cameroon does not have HIV/AIDS programs designed to meet the special needs of LGBT people, despite evidence that this population is vulnerable to the virus. The government does not track HIV prevalence and conducts no surveys of behavior in these communities related to transmission of the virus. Furthermore, the government prohibits the distribution of condoms in prisons, although HIV prevalence in prisons is high, male prisoners engage in homosexual sex, and rape is common. “People living in secrecy are vulnerable to blackmail and abuse,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LBGT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Arrests may be relatively rare, but the physical violence and mental cruelty against this population are devastating.”
Over the past five years, international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council have repeatedly urged the Cameroon government to take action to end the persecution of LGBT citizens and put in place universal HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and public health programs for all its citizens, however the government has refused to take up these recommendations, continuing a trend of unwillingness to deal with the human rights abuses inflicted on LGBT or perceived LGBT citizens within its borders.
“The criminalization of same-sex conduct has consequences beyond the obvious unacceptable arrests,” said Monica Mbaru, African coordinator of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “It drives inequality within the justice system itself and promotes violence within people’s homes, families, and communities. The government of Cameroon needs to accept responsibility to ensure all Cameroonians live free of discrimination, whatever their orientation or identity.”
According to the Advocate, Cameroon’s communications minister, Issa Tchiroma, appeared Wednesday on BBC Network Africa and commented that while conviction for homosexuality in the country is punishable by up to three years in prison, “What I can emphasize is the fact that no homosexual is persecuted in Cameroon.”
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