Revv22's Blog

July 23, 2011

LGBTI Rights in Africa – a prerequisite for Sustainable Development.

The June 17th 2011 UN resolution, A/HRC/17/L.9/Rev.1, was the first ever to bring specific focus to human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Presented by South Africa along with Brazil and 39 additional co-sponsors from all regions of the world, It recalled the Universal Declaration of Human Rights noting that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms without distinction of any kind and called on the Council, through the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights ,to draw up the first U.N. report on challenges faced by gay people worldwide. The report, due by December 2011, should document discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
UN resolution A/HRC/17/L.9/Rev.1 was passed by a vote of 23 in favour, 19 against, and 3 abstentions. Of the 13 African nations sitting in the council two were in favour, two abstained and the remaining nine voted against the resolution. This is consistent with the prevailing laws within the content that widely characterize same sex relations as being “… against the order of nature” (Kenya Penal Code, Sect. 162-165). All the Asian states that voted against were either Islamic or had a dominantly Muslim population. This was a stark contrast to Latin American and Caribbean member states who all voted for the resolution along with Western Europe and the United States.
In Africa, a number of factors contribute to the continued conservative views and homophobic attitudes towards alternate sexual orientations.
Sex talk in Africa culture is generally considered taboo and it is probably for this reason that there exist many myths and misconceptions about African – Sexuality. Many anti– Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Intersexed (LGBTI) people in the continent often argue that homosexuality is alien to our culture and was introduced to Africa by European colonialists. Though I personally tend to think engaging in such a debate is a less pragmatic approach than what is needed, it would still be fitting to point out that historians have proved otherwise. One case in point are the Azande people in the north-east of modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where it was acceptable for kings, princes and soldiers to take young male lovers (Blackwood, 1985). We have also seen that early colonial Portuguese penal codes criminalized homosexuality in Angola. Prior to Portuguese control, homosexual men called chibados had
been free to exercise their sexuality. Portuguese colonial laws either gave rise to or intensified homophobia in Africa. Therefore contrary to this non informed argument, homophobia is more colonial than the practice of homosexuality in Africa.

Religiosity in the continent is quite high with a majority of worshipers adhering to Christianity and Islam. Both religions facilitate homophobia because they regard homosexuality as sin. It is true that most LGBTI persons have been able to find sanctuary within the more tolerant factions within said religions, such as ordination of gay bishops in the Anglican Church in Europe, but this is rarely the African story. The church in Africa has been very firm on their stand against homosexuality. One of the reasons cited by the church in Kenya as they campaigned against the proposed constitution in the 2010 referendum was that it provided loopholes for abortion and same sex marriage. In Uganda, the murder of David Kato, an advocacy officer for the gay rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), resulted in calls for American right wing evangelism to take responsibility. “Those U.S conservatives who have lit the brushfire of homophobia in Africa have to bear some responsibility for this tragic death and for the conflagration that now threatens to consume all gay Ugandans.” – Rev. Kapya Kaoma, the director of Political Research Associates (PRA)’s Project on Religion and Sexuality.
A High Court Judge in Kenya’s second city Mombasa, on Wednesday July 6 announced a landmark ruling allowing a woman who was “married” to another woman to inherit her late “husband’s” property worth millions of Kenya shillings…. In his ruling, Justice Ojwang’ made reference to Eugene Cotran’s The law of Marriage and Divorce (1968) “woman to woman marriage is a recognized family institution in the Nandi customary law”. Such a ruling is consistent with Blessing-Miles Tendi’s argument that lesbianism is more acceptable in the continent due to the worldview that African masculinity should epitomize physical strength and warrior like ability. The challenge of colonialism in Africa and slavery in the Diasporas necessitated such a demand. Tendi explains that in his native Zimbabwe, homosexuals and white males alike are interpreted as being synonymous with femininity and vulnerability.

Homophobia in many African and other third world countries results in a cocktail of subtle and inconspicuous implications that affect individuals and members of the close knit LGBTI communities, mixed together with more visible repercussions that confound the general society.
Persons of LGBTI sexual orientations, especially those who are forthright with their sexuality, are usually denied opportunities for employment in most government institutions, and some non-governmental institutions such as faith based organizations funded by religious fundamentalists. Most employment opportunities for LGBTIs come from the service and hospitality sectors where clientele entail a mixture of nationalities and higher levels of tolerance; and from fashion and entertainment industry where self employment and free lance consultancy is the norm. Even then some level of secrecy, especially form the media lime light is maintained. The tag “equal opportunities employer”, without the backing of societal tolerance, let alone acceptance, is a mere conditionality for ISO certification. This institutionalized discrimination is also seen in the lack of recognition for a third sex- intersexual in documentation and paperwork associated with employment. On a broader level, these limitations faced by LGBTI individuals affect the allocation of resources and their ability to equally compete for resources in society. As a result, some members of the LGBTI community resort to dependence on their fellow LGBTI friends and partners. The result is that many gay relationships in urban centers such as Nairobi, involve two men with a considerable age difference (approx. 6yrs on average). The older man is usually the richer of the two and in some cases married with a family. He acts as the main provider and takes care of bills in the relationship. The younger man may sometimes have more than one partner.

Such a situation brings to the fore the issue of lack of accountability and responsibility in relationships. With many relationships being clandestine, promiscuity becomes a norm and to some extent acceptable. Bloggers have raised concerns about the levels of promiscuity and serial monogamy among LGBTI persons. This is especially so for those who seek to paint a grim image of LGBTIsm. They however have an easy job at it since researches conducted throughout the years seem to concur. In one such study of the sexual profiles of 2,583 older homosexuals, “the modal range for number of sexual partners ever (of homosexuals) was 101–500.” In addition, 10.2 to 15.7 % had between 501 and 1000 partners. A further 15.7% reported having had more than 1000 lifetime sexual partners (Van de Ven et al, 1997). This raises concerns on two fronts.
Firstly, men having sex with other men are considered to be the most at risk in terms HIV/AIDS vulnerability. African cities such as Nairobi, which have considerably smaller populations among LGBTI communities than their western counterparts, would be hotbeds for disease spread if the statistics applied. With the world becoming more and more homogenous thanks to globalization, it seems more likely that behavioral patterns in Africa would coincide with those in the western world. Secondly the lack of channels for redress in case of physical, emotional or even financial aggravations has made LGBTI relationships the hotspots for exploitation, blackmail and other forms of abuse. LGBTIs, especially those who are public figures, have many times been blackmailed rouge journalists and even police officers who threaten to expose their secret lifestyles or to arrest them. It is not uncommon to hear incidents of a disgruntled lover threatening to expose the relationship to the partners legally accepted family. Physical abuse and rape is even harder to report to the police who are yet to prove their competence in handling rape cases within legally accepted unions.
The stigma and discrimination face by LGBTIs, particularly in developing and transitioning nations grossly affect the level of access to health services. Most nations lack the necessary strategies e.g. in healthcare and disease interventions simply because of the personal views of policy makers. India is a country where homosexuality was decriminalized in 2009. There was uproar when the minister for health, in a conference made remarks describing gay sex as “unnatural” and “foreign”. Concerned parties fear that such an attitude, especially from the health chief, would be a stumbling block to the delivery of health services for homosexuals. Closer to home, in Zimbabwe, the coalition partners ZanuPF and MDC were recently caught in a spat of accusations and counter accusations where both accused the other of harboring homosexuals. Politicians often pick populist topics to distract the masses during crises. Homophobia and gay-bashing are increasingly becoming favorite topics even for politicians who have a reform- minded track record. In such a scenario, one expects zero goodwill from political leadership when advocating for consideration in health policy frameworks. There is also a danger of further escalating the levels of homophobia to reach the levels of violence as witnessed in Uganda.
Another implication for the continued institutionalized homophobia is the resulting exclusion of LGBTIs in the national and regional development agenda. Individuals may participate in civic duties such as voting, paying taxes and even philanthropy but they would not be doing so in their capacities as members an LGBTI community who have a right to articulate their specific needs. This means that they cannot fully participate in a development agenda that excludes them.
With all this in mind, it appears strategies for LGBTI activism need to be bolder. Although illegal, LGBTI community in Kenya enjoys the presence of rights organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) which advocate for its rights. However, this has majorly been done through health interventions such as HIV/AIDS campaigns raising concerns that the overall picture of LGBTIsm, risks being associated with disease and not much else. Pushing for decriminalization of LGBTI practice in the country would enable such rights organizations address issues of abuse more openly and confidently. It would open up discussions for how the decriminalization would ensure the equality of LGBTIs as human beings.
It is encouraging to see that even on the religious front; discussions are coming up that are geared at challenging the conservative standpoints taken by religious leaders. MaqC’s Express is a blog on WordPress.com that epitomizes such discussion. The blogger builds his argument on sexuality by providing contextual interpretations of certain verses in the Christian Bible believed to be the evidence of the Christian “homosexuality is sin” perspective, and clearly challenges their relevance in the debate. Such a discourse is vital in addressing religion based homophobia that is a stumbling block LGBTI decriminalization.
Strategies for LGBTI activism should also switch to be more inclusive. It is evident, understandably, that most people who work within such organizations are LGBTIs. For greater success, I feel that inclusion of particular members of society who are LGBTI friendly is necessary. This would provide an entry point n networking with general society similar to the way qualitative field research and participatory interventions are carried out. As the LGBTI community seeks to be included in society, they should be willing to compromise some of the exclusivity they enjoy. Decriminalization for the LGBTI being the ultimate goal should not make activists blind to the small steps that are needed in making the desired legislation sustainable once achieved.

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