Legalising homophobia, setting the precedents in Africa
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’, but Uganda has taken the war against gays and lesbians in Africa to extremes, with lawmakers proposing to imprison and counsel homosexuals to reverse their sexual orientation.
The legislation formerly 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 altered the Bill, introducing imprisonment and counseling to offenders. The legislation 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.
The Ugandan bill has sent a chilling shockwave among sexual rights activists who fear that other countries will introduce similar laws. Currently, a majority of African countries, including Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia have laws that criminalize homosexuality.
Fears of continent wide persecution of gays and lesbians have some basis. The Presidents of Namibia, Kenya, Zambia and 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 reaction or shameful denials. Families have been torn apart, jobs lost and individuals committing suicide because of homosexuality associations. 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 is a case in point.
To maintain a tight cap over any discussions about gays and lesbians in the public sphere, many African governments have banned the media from reporting issues related to homosexuality. In Zimbabwe, GALZ reports of the banning of the British lesbian magazine, the Diva and the Penguin Book of Lesbian short stories. 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.
The blanket cover on gay issues in African countries has resulted in the lack of information by citizens about this phenomenon. This has fueled the spread of myths and misconceptions that perpetuate the stigmatisation of gays and lesbians. One misconception is that HIV started as a result of homosexuality.
According to a GALZ research, Africans believe that homosexuality was brought to the continent by whites during colonialism. The 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.
One of the countries in Africa that has laws that recognise gays and lesbians is South Africa. Section 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights recognises protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation among other things. However, the situation on the ground is different. The Lesbian Forum, a South African based Lesbian rights organisation reports about gangs, particularly the Jackrollers gang rape anyone they suspect to be a lesbian.
While homophobia in Africa is rampant, there is need for governments 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 homosexuals. 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 colonialism argument may tempt other African leaders that have problems with the west to use the issue to get back to the former colonisers
The precedent set by Uganda will leave an indelible mark on the cultural and religious attitudes towards gays and lesbians by Africans. The piece of legislation takes sexual rights activists a long way back in efforts to achieve the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, to the highest attainable standard of sexual health, including access to sexual and reproductive health care services; seek, receive and impart information related to sexuality; sexuality education; respect for bodily integrity; choose their partner; decide to be sexually active or not; consensual sexual relations; consensual marriage; decide whether or not, and when, to have children; and pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life.
1. Rachel Rosenbloom (Ed), Unspoken Rules. Sexual Orientation and Women’s Human Rights, Cassell, 1996.
2. Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, Unspoken facts. A history of homosexuality in Africa, Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe, 2008