Rights of Sexual minorities

Gertrude Pswarayi
Posted May 5, 2009 from Zimbabwe

This is an article that was that written by Sian Maseko, the Director of the Sexual Rights Centre, a charitable organsiation based in Zimbabwe. In March this year the US finally endorsed the UN statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity . This endorsement demonstrated the importance of this statement and the need to recognise the rights of sexual minorities in order to fully realise human rights. However, homosexuality is criminalised in over 70 countries and the penalties are often very severe and in some cases include execution. Sexual minorities have struggled tirelessly for recognition of their rights in very hostile, violent and dangerous circumstances. A recent conference in Uganda reiterated the need for tighter and stricter legislation governing homosexuality . The IGLHRC also reports increasing hate crimes against the LGBTI community in Iraq, including the murder of two men in April 2009 . It is alarming that even in the 21st Century we still need to justify and explain the importance of human rights for all citizens. The religious, social and political backlash against sexual minorities has serious consequences for the human rights agenda.

In Africa one of the major challenges around the issue of same-sex practising people is the serious lack of research. This gap is a result of the social stigma surrounding the issue and the lack of political will to acknowledge the importance of including same-sex practising people in programmes. Many African leaders have famously expressed strong homophobic sentiments to the extent that violence and abuse towards homosexuals is not condemned and receives impunity. Zimbabwe’s President is notorious for his homophobic statements. The oppression of the LGBTI community in Zimbabwe is widely acknowledged and documented. In spite of the efforts of GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) and the Sexual Rights Centre, homosexuality is still shrouded in silence and stigma in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean leadership’s homophobia is also reflected in the exclusion of sexual minorities in the Constitution and the criminalisation of homosexuality. The inclusion of MSM in Zimbabwe’s National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan was significant; however, it was followed by an immediate refutation from the National AIDS Council denying that programmes would be undertaken with MSM . The homophobia from the highest echelons of power towards sexual minorities fuels extensive stigma and discrimination and exacerbates the isolation and ostracism this groups experiences. The example of Zimbabwe has been mirrored by many African governments and reveals that LGBTI organisations still have many hurdles to jump before the rights of sexual minorities are truly acknowledged in Africa. In addition a state-sponsored homophobia is gradually becoming the trend in many African countries, resulting in regular reports of arrests, murders and attacks on the LGBTI community.

Definitions of sexuality and sexual orientation.

Research conducted by Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC has suggested that in Southern Africa people have a more fluid understanding of sexuality, preferring not to label themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, but rather perceiving the act of sex to more important than the sex of the person with whom they are having intercourse . The categories of sexual identity are not rigid or static. This perception of sexual identity has an impact on each individual’s sexual development and demonstrates the importance of not labelling or stereotyping people based on their sexual orientation and sexual preferences. The need to understand sexuality, sexual relations and sexual orientation in a more flexible and less fixed way has challenged many conservative NGOs, especially HIV/AIDS service providers to reflect on their programmes and approaches. Unfortunately, the exclusion in many constitutions polices and strategies have permitted NGOs to make personal judgements about the implementation of projects, rather than responding to the needs of their communities. As long as stigma and discrimination exists against sexual minorities, the development community will be paralysed and unable to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, violence against women and human rights abuses.

Criminalisation of homosexuality.

The criminalisation of homosexuality has far-reaching consequences for sexual minorities and the community at large. The criminalisation of homosexuality, often defined as a crime against morality or against nature, forces sexual minorities to go underground, entering heterosexual relationships (often concurrently with homosexual relationships) to hide their sexual identity, engaging in risky behaviour, and enduring violence and abuse. Social stigma against men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women often prevents people from accessing medical services because of discrimination and harassment. The homophobia created by the criminalisation has led to unlawful arrest, detention and extortion. In Zimbabwe, for example, both men and women have been forced to engage in sex or sexual acts with police officers to secure their release. Extortion is often linked to blackmail, the threat of exposure and further arrest. In a recent Sexual Rights Centre workshop with counsellors, one participant commented that same-sex practices were the domain of the privileged and wealthy and not for the poor and uneducated. This was only one perspective, but it tallies with research that suggests homosexuality is associated with wealth and unlimited income and as a consequence the LGBTI community are often victims of extortion and financial exploitation .

Homosexuality is a crime in Zimbabwe many men and women still prefer to engage in same-sex practices, but disassociate themselves from the label homosexual or gay, regardless of their sexual orientation. This disassociation may be for a number of reasons, but the consequence is that in development programming is that these people are excluded or overlooked. This demonstrates the fact that although in Zimbabwe it is only the act of homosexuality that is criminalised and not actually ‘being gay’ the impact of criminalising the act is also the criminalisation of a person’s sexual identity.

HIV/AIDS – the bigger picture for sexual minorities.

The impact of suppressing one’s sexual identity is significant and can have a devastating effect on individuals’ psychological, physical and sexual well-being. The denial of freedom of sexual expression can result in barriers to accessing information and resources, appropriate and adequate services and care, increased vulnerability to violence and abuse and limited resource for violations and injustices. One area of serious concern is the impact that homophobia has on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As AIDS-Free World has commented in reference to the homophobia of Jamaica’s leaders ‘criminalising homosexuality plays a major role in the AIDS epidemic’. As the writers explain the barriers facing high-risk groups including bigotry and ‘legalised discrimination’ contribute to the continuation of the pandemic and prevent effective and meaningful interventions on HIV/AIDS . This is reiterated in a UNAIDS policy brief about MSM and HIV/AIDS noting that ‘recognition of the rights of people with different sexual identities, both in law and practice, combined with sufficient, scaled up HIV programming’ can lead to a successful and effective response to the pandemic.

The UNAIDS policy brief reflects on the broad group of men who have sex with men. Sex between men can occur in a variety of different circumstances. The brief mentions an important group: men who have sex with men in prisons. According to an IGLHRC report sex in prisons is often coerced and violent in Africa. Inmates serving time for homosexual offences are particularly vulnerable. However, many governments refuse to allow condoms to be distributed in prisons leaving prisoners vulnerable to infection and increasing the risk of transmission into the wider community after release. A report about Canadian prisoners also notes the problem of drug users sharing needles that perpetuates the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The criminalisation of homosexuality also impacts on the work of HIV/AIDS service providers to effectively address the needs of MSM and WSW. It is undeniable that homophobia and human rights violations, denial and stigma against the LGBTI community, drive the epidemic severely compromise a country’s ability to address the HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS service providers are not held accountable for their inclusion of minority groups and high risk groups. Many service providers do not even have the most basic information and resources about these issues. However, the inhumane treatment of sexual minorities is not simply about addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it is also about upholding the right of all citizens to choose their sexual orientation, freely, safely and pleasurably express their sexuality and to exercise control over their own bodies and bodily integrity.

Forgotten groups:

Another challenge in dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic is the ignorance of other groups that are overlooked or experience dual stigma based on their orientation and gender. This particular group is WSW.

Many organisations are dismissive of the importance of working with lesbians, particularly on issues of HIV/AIDS. However, as a result of this attitude many lesbians and bisexual women are not able to access resources and information about HIV/AIDS. Regardless of personal prejudices this is a violation of women’s human rights. According to research, although lesbian women have a lower prevalence than heterosexual women, the rate amongst self-reporting South African lesbians was much higher than expected at between 9% and 15% . The belief that lesbians are not affected by HIV/AIDS is reflected, for example, in their exclusion from Zimbabwe’s National HIV/AIDS Charter, although MSM are included. This exclusion does not only have consequences for HIV/AIDS programming and service delivery, but also impacts on women themselves. Many women do not believe it is necessary to use any form of protection during sex with another woman . As a recent IGLHRC report comments ‘no African women’s organisation is addressing the issue of female-female transmission of HIV/AIDS ....as a result women who have sex with women may be the most “at risk” group of all, not due to biological susceptibility, but to sheer neglect’ .

The increasing incidences of hate crimes, particularly in Southern Africa, also demonstrate the vulnerability of WSW to violence and HIV/AIDS. Many women in Southern Africa are disadvantaged as society adheres to a patriarchal system that is oppressive and restrictive, expecting women to adhere to clearly defined gender roles and responsibilities. For lesbians the oppression is exacerbated by a rigid intolerance and misunderstanding of alternative sexualities. Although sexual minorities are not criminalised in South Africa, traditional codes and culture still controls a women’s bodily integrity and freedom to make decisions about their bodies. Lesbian women have experienced sexual violence, particularly rape, from men as ‘corrective’ procedures to force them to become ‘normal’ . According to a recent report published by ActionAid, about corrective rape in South Africa, this form of sexual violence is about teaching lesbians to be girls not men. Rape is used as a weapon of control and oppression of a woman’s sexuality and sexual identity. The research demonstrated that it was black lesbians from townships, with lack of support systems or services, disadvantaged by culture and poverty that were most at risk of sexual violence. Sexual violence against women and men greatly increases their vulnerability to contracting HIV. Another report about men who have sex with men also commented that rates of non-consensual sex amongst MSM are often very high, but persistently go unreported because of social stigma and shame.

The gender stereotypes that pervade many societies greatly impact on women’s liberty and freedom of expression. Research conducted by Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC has suggested that in Southern Africa people have a more fluid understanding of sexuality, preferring not to label themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, but rather perceiving the act of sex to more important than the sex of the person with whom they are having intercourse . However, this does not apply to women, who are fiercely judged by their sexuality and sexual expression. Women are labelled and ostracised if they step outside the boundaries of sexuality determined for them by culture. Lesbians are considered a threat to masculinity and an insult to male sexuality . The categories for women are very rigidly defined, in which the opinion or preferences of women are irrelevant. Men, however, are much freer to explore their sexual urges. Men are expected to obey certain cultural rules of having children, but this does not restrict sexual experimentation and exploration. Although homosexual men are also coerced into heterosexual marriage, it is much more difficult for a woman to exert any independence or autonomy within the marital state and this is particularly applicable in the sexual relationship. Consequently, marriage is a much more confining and inflexible state for women than or men.

Adhering to strict gender norms is particularly complex for many lesbians. Many women have separated or divorced their husbands, which carries a heavy stigma. Some women are forced into heterosexual relationships or motherhood. The Sexual Rights Centre works with sex workers in Zimbabwe, advocating for their rights. In these groups several women have disclosed that they are lesbians, although they engage in heterosexual sex work to support their families. One participant explained that her mother had become suspicious that she was a lesbian. The mother insisted that her daughter should have a child to prove she was normal. As a result the girl had unprotected sex with one of her clients and conceived. As this story illustrates these norms are not always just enforced by men, on the contrary women (aunties, mothers, sisters, mother-in-laws) exert substantial pressure on young women to conform to a model of womanhood. The gender imbalance in Zimbabwe is generally uniform across all cultures, although it manifests itself differently for example the issue of wife inheritance is much stronger in the Tonga culture than the other cultures in Zimbabwe. This imbalance often prevents women from socialising freely or living independently. It is unusual for a young woman to live alone or away from her family before marriage. Women’s lives are closely monitored and controlled.

Sex workers.

Another at risk group are male sex workers who have sex with men and as the example demonstrates above lesbian sex workers who have sex with men. Sex work is a taboo subject in many countries. At a recent conference with African Sex Workers it was argued that it is essential to decriminalise homosexuality in order to address the human rights of sex workers. Sex workers and the LGBTI community often fill the same space in societies that adhere to moralistic and didactic codes of conduct. The focus of HIV/AIDS programmes has often been on female sex workers, ignoring the needs of male sex workers. In addition, programmes are often centred on rehabilitation and curing a social ill. However, in order to address the needs of sex workers and particularly male and lesbian sex workers development programmes must approach sex workers in a non-judgemental and non-stigmatising way. Programmes targeting sex workers also need to be aware of the different spaces occupied by sex work (indoor and outdoor), as well as the challenge of including ethnic minority groups in programming. The prostitution pledge of the US government and the increased funding to conservative religious groups under President George Bush seriously impacted on HIV/AIDS programmes working with sex workers and the LGBTI community. However, the approach of the new government embraces the concept of human rights and the need to include these groups in HIV/AIDS programmes.

The suppression and containment of people’s sexuality will seriously hinder efforts to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. For as long as young girls engage in anal sex to avoid failing virginity tests or getting pregnant in South Africa, as same-sex violence amongst the LGBTI community continues unnoticed all over the world, as women continue to be raped on the basis of their sexual orientation and as the LGBTI continue to be denied access to vital health service then the international community, INGOs, grass-roots organisations and communities will never be able to tackle HIV/AIDS effectively.


Sexuality and gender are becoming increasingly important issues for development agencies and activists. The inclusion and involvement of sexual minorities, new alliances being created to take an integrated approach to sexuality and increased lobbying and advocacy on sexual rights issues are significant steps to change behaviour and attitudes towards sexual minorities. Sexual rights have become an important framework to challenge the dominant ideologies around sexuality, sexual behaviour and sexual orientation.

However, as NGOs working on issues of sexual rights, we still have many obstacles to overcome. We must lobby governments to understand the importance of sexual rights as fundamental to the realisation of all human rights. We must ensure the inclusion of all sexual minority groups at all levels of the political, social and civil processes. In Zimbabwe we hope that the new government will prove its mettle by decriminalising homosexuality and allowing the LGBTI to be active citizens in their countries development. In Africa we must challenge our leaders and hold them accountable for homophobic and violent language. Internationally, we must work together to ensure that no exceptions are made to the call for universal equality, equity and human rights.

You can also read an artilce title Conference Seeks Decriminalisation of Sex Work written by Nomancotsho Pakade on http://www.womensnet.org.za/news/conference-seeks-descrinination-sex-work

Comments 1

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May 14, 2009
May 14, 2009

Homosexuality is illegal in Jamaica too. The recently elected prime Minister Bruce Golding was quoted on BBC shortly after he was elected saying he has no plans to decriminalize it. Gays are frequently beaten too and the words of lyrics in reggae music are usually laced with hatred of this group. There is the belief that it causes/helps in the spread of HIV/AIDS. I don't know to what extent this is true as no research has been doen. However, some people who advocate violence against this group themselves do not practice healthy sexual behavior as they engage in having multiple sexual partners, several baby mothers or cheat on their wives. These behaviors are perhaps more risky in speading sexually transmitted diseases. Anyone who engage in a loving relationship with one sexual partner is having a healthy sexual relationship. This stems from having a high level of self esteem and valuing yourself. In the fight against HIV/AIDS, it is very important that we include all groups, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Sexual education is necessary in schools and everywhere in Jamaica, as these issues are often not talked about or addressed. Rape, incest and violence against women is common and sometimes go unpunished. Last year I read in the newspaper of a young girl who was raped and even though there was an eye witness and the man was caught immediately by the police, running from the crime scene, when the case was brought before the court, he was freed by the judge. The laws exist to protect women but they need to be reviewed or enforced. Women need to be empowered to have a healthy level of self respect and men to respect themselves and others.

I will learn alot from you about sexual issues. Then I can pass on my knowledge.