Human rights group Amnesty International has issued a new report warning that homophobia is rising in Africa, often with violent and even lethal consequences.
The report, Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of Same-Sex Conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa, starts by noting an increase in reports of harassment, marginalization, discrimination and abuse directed at the LGBTI community on grounds of their perceived and actual sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Such ill-treatment is particularly prevalent in the 38 African countries that still make same-sex relationships illegal via either specific “carnal knowledge” bans or colonial anti-sodomy provisions.
Unfortunately, several nations have moved to further criminalize their LGBTI populations.
Many readers will have heard of Uganda’s Kill the Gays bill, but they may not be aware that even if the much talked of death penalty provision is amended or dropped entirely, the bill remains a substantial threat.
“If this bill passes, Uganda will need to build bigger prisons. This bill will mean that my father, my mother and my brother will become criminals and face prison terms of up to seven years simply for not reporting me to the police for being a lesbian,” activist Jay Abang is quoted as saying.
Sadly, this isn’t the only sub-Saharan African nation aiming to further discriminate against its LGBTI community.
On gaining independence in 2008, the South Sudan passed a law mandating a 10 year jail term for a man or woman found to have had sex with someone of the same sex. Burundi, too, has criminalized same-sex relationships, revising its Criminal Code in 2009 to specifically outlaw “sexual relations with a person of the same sex.”
As same-sex marriage has gained attention in Western nations, and in particular in the United Kingdom and United States, African nations such as Nigeria and Liberia have either moved to or have adopted legislation to further criminalize same-sex relationships and specifically same-sex marriages, and the harms of this institutionalized discrimination have been profound.
Cameroon earns a particular mention for the frequency of people informing on others, saying that they are gay and allowing the law to do its worst.
This often means that, even if those involved are not in fact LGBTI, they could be arrested, maybe convicted without evidence and, in some cases, citizens have been subject to invasive medical examinations such as anal screenings to try to “prove” the victim had sex with someone of the same sex.
Even in a wider context such as health care, discrimination prevents the LGBTI community from receiving the care they deserve.
“I went to hospital for a test, and the doctor said I had a STI (sexually transmitted infection) and told me to come back with my partner… My girlfriend and I came to the hospital…. But when we sat down, the doctor told us to go away. When we left, he called his colleagues and they were pointing at us saying ‘lesbian, lesbian,’” Jo Mandeng, a lesbian activist from Cameroon is quoted as saying.
Even in nations where laws against LGBTI persons are not often invoked, the very existence of those laws means victims are open to extortion and blackmail. This threat may come from other citizens, or may even come from the police themselves.
Such environments mean LGBTI individuals who face discrimination have little to no hope of legal remedy and will fear that should they try to avail themselves of legal help, they will in turn be subject to more harassment, but this time from the very authorities meant to stop such treatment.
That this creates an environment ripe for sexual and physical violence is obvious.
Amnesty International reports it has tracked seven rapes and murders of LGBT people since June 2012 and, given that discrimination means local authorities do not collect statistics on anti-LGBTI discrimination, this figure is likely much higher. Yet, despite guarantees of protection from state laws and wider international human rights laws, these violations will often go unchallenged. Also, even if the perpetrators are arrested, the bias motivated aspect of their crimes will not be recognized.
No more obvious was this than in the case of David Kato, a prominent Ugandan LGBTI activist who was killed in his home in 2011. Despite evidence that the crime may have been motivated by anti-LGBTI fervor, Ugandan authorities refused to entertain even the possibility that Kato was killed because of his sexuality or his human rights work.
Some Progress On Gay Rights In Sub-Saharan Africa, Despite Grave Concerns
With the help of local NGOs and advocacy groups, there has been some progress in some African nations, especially when taking a broader view of the past decade.
For instance, the 2010 revision of the Kenyan Constitution creates a legal framework that Amnesty says holds “significant improvements” for the rights of LGBTI people. Moreover, a number of African nations have enacted nondiscrimination legislation or removed discriminatory provisions from their laws, such as Seychelles and Mozambique.
Of course, South Africa has made extensive legal gains where LGBTI rights are concerned, including the legalization of same-sex couples adopting (2002) and same-sex marriage (2006). Moreover, South Africa has broad constitutional protections that explicitly cover sexual orientation and gender discrimination.
It should be mentioned, however, that South Africa continues to struggle with anti-LGBTI discrimination despite these robust protections.
This is not to minimize the significant improvements that have been made, but to put in context that legislation can only go so far and that outreach, implementation and education must also play their part in minimizing anti-LGBTI feeling.
Amnesty’s Recommendations for Future Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa
In terms of specific actions, the report unsurprisingly recommends nations immediately decriminalize and repeal punitive laws against LGBTI citizens.
The report also calls on authorities to ensure that they recognize the human rights of all communities regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that they investigate to the full extent of their duty and the law any and all alleged human rights violations against LGBTI citizens.
Amnesty also highlights that the UK, as head of the Commonwealth and so with considerable influence in some nations, should take a stronger role in calling for and actively pursuing the decriminalization of LGBTI identity.
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