Uganda has just taken the Africa-wide war against gays and lesbians to the extreme, with proposed legislation that would imprison homosexuals and force counseling to reverse their sexual orientation.
The Ugandan bill has sent a chilling shockwave among sexual rights activists who fear that other countries will introduce similar laws. Currently, 29 of the 53 African countries, including Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana, and Namibia have laws that criminalize homosexuality.
Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe has called gays “worse than dogs and pigs,” the Archbishop of the Anglican church in Nigeria has termed homosexuality a “satanic attack,” and the Namibian minister of home affairs once ordered police to “arrest on sight homosexuals and eliminate them from the face of Namibia.”
The initial version of the Ugandan legislation would have imposed life imprisonment for a single homosexual act and imposed the death penalty in cases where the gay individual is a "serial offender", HIV positive, a "person of authority" over the partner, or in cases where the "victim" is below 18. Legislators have recently suggested changes to the bill that would replace the death penalty with imprisonment and counseling to offenders. The new version of the legislation still proposes a seven year prison term for any person who "aids, abets, counsels, or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality," a seven year term for landlords convicted of renting to gay individuals, and a three year term for anyone of "religious, political, economic, or social authority" who does not report any knowledge of homosexual acts.
As a Zimbabwean advocate for the rights of sexual minorities, I have witnessed how the Uganda legislative threats have created panic and despondence among sexual minorities. Sexual minority groups fear that President Mugabe will be emboldened by the situation in Uganda to come up with laws in Zimbabwe that are similar, if not worse. There is also a general fear among sexual minorities that stigma and discrimination may escalate and lead to more violence against them.
In our organization, the Sexual Rights Centre, we work closely with sexual minorities in order to develop skills, empower groups with information and resources, and develop the ability of the group members to actively participate in the broader national advocacy program. The projects seek to reduce stigma and discrimination, increase understanding and awareness and ensure that the rights of every individual are respected and that the responsibilities of every individual are understood. The purpose of our work is to lobby for the specific inclusion of sexual orientation as prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Constitution.
Fears of continent-wide persecution of gays and lesbians have some basis. The presidents of Namibia, Kenya, and Zambia, as well as the King of Swaziland have echoed President Mugabe’s vitriolic attacks against gays and lesbians, according to GALZ, a Zimbabwean based Human Rights organisation championing the cause of gays and lesbians.
In many African countries, any association with homosexuality sparks violent reactions or shameful denials. Families have been torn apart, jobs have been lost, and individuals have committed suicide due to associations with homosexuality. A chilling example is the case of Jefta Dube, a Zimbabwean police officer who shot and killed a colleague after the deceased had called him ‘ngochani’, a derogatory term for a homosexual.
Many African governments, in order to maintain a tight cap over any discussions about gays and lesbians in the public sphere, have banned the media from reporting issues related to homosexuality. In Zimbabwe, GALZ reports, the British lesbian magazine, Diva, and The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories have been banned. The government also banned GALZ from advertising in the state controlled Herald newspaper on the pretext that the newspaper was a “family” paper. The electronic media has also been banned from reporting anything by gay rights activists.
As a citizen journalist, I often contribute news articles to local newspapers. Recently, an acting editor for a local weekly community newspaper said she regretteed that she would not be in a position to publish any of my articles about sex, sexuality education, and sexual rights issues.
The blanket cover-up of gay issues in African countries has resulted in the lack of information about this phenomenon. This has fueled the spread of myths and misconceptions that perpetuate the stigmatization of gays and lesbians.
According to GALZ research, many Africans believe that homosexuality was brought to the continent by whites during colonialism. Another misconception is that HIV started as a result of homosexuality. Research reveals that homosexuality in the traditional African societies was abhorred because it was strongly linked to witchcraft and strong medicines. However, this has been disputed by archeologist findings by Peter Garlake who found some Bushmen paintings of males engaging in sexual acts.
The introduction of Christianity to Africa did not help matters. Church officials have cited the Bible, particularly the book of Corinthians, to justify the persecution of Gays and Lesbians. The fiasco in the Anglican Church over the appointment of gay bishops has renewed resentment against gays and lesbians.
Even supposedly tolerant countries, such as South Africa, struggle to ensure human rights of gay and lesbian individuals. Section 8 of South Africa’s Charter of Fundamental Rights recognises protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the situation on the ground is different. The Lesbian Forum, a South African based lesbian rights organization reports that gangs, such as the “Jackrollers,” gang rape anyone they suspect to be a lesbian.
Homophobia in Africa is rampant and governments need to come up with laws that protect homosexuals. Sexual orientation is a human right and homosexuals have a right to be protected by the state. Governments in Africa should create an environment that upholds the rights of sexual minorities. This will reduce stigma and discrimination, increase understanding and awareness, and ensure that the rights of every individual are respected, and the responsibilities of every individual are understood. The fact that Uganda’s argument is steeped in the language of colonialism may tempt other African leaders who have problems with the West to latch on to this issue..
The precedent set by Uganda will leave an indelible mark on the cultural and religious attitudes towards gays and lesbians in Africa. The piece of legislation takes sexual rights activists a long way back in efforts to achieve the right of all persons to attain the highest standard of sexual health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. It could limit rights to access sexual and reproductive health care services; to seek, receive, and impart information related to sexuality; to demand respect for bodily integrity; to choose one’s partner; to decide to be sexually active or not; to have consensual sexual relations; to enjoy consensual marriage; to decide whether or not, and when, to have children; and to pursue a satisfying, safe, and pleasurable sexual life.