African civil society groups call for an end to human right violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity

"Sexuality is the lyricism of the masses." Charles Baudelaire
“Sexuality is the lyricism of the masses.” Charles Baudelaire

On the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), a partnership of over 60 African civil society organisations working in southern and eastern Africa to promote a rights-based response to HIV and TB, calls on African governments to protect all citizens against violence, without discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The lives of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Africa are plagued by harassment, violence, arbitrary arrest, rape, sexual assault and detention based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Recognising this dire state of affairs, the United Nations Human Rights Council, adopted its first resolution on the rights of homosexuals and transgendered individuals, introduced by South Africa, on June 17, 2011. The resolution expresses “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity”.

“Although cases of violence against individuals based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity are often under-reported or misrepresented, there were numerous reports of violence against LGBTI people from around the region in 2012 and 2013, some of which resulted in death,” said Michaela Clayton, Director of ARASA. “On a daily basis, LGBTI people are being singled out, harassed and violated because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. While the impact of these violations are multiple and complex, it limits the ability of individuals to realise their socio economic rights to education, food, shelter, work and health. In southern and eastern Africa, this in turn contributes to the disproportionately high rates of HIV amongst people in adult consensual same sex relationships.”

Many factors contribute to violence against LGBTI people, ranging from hate speech and sensational media reporting fuelled by rigid religious and cultural norms to laws that criminalise adult consensual same sex sexual conduct. In 38 African countries same sex sexual conduct between consenting adults is criminalised and punishable by death in 4 (Nigeria, Mauritania, Sudan and some parts of Somalia).

Misguided laws and punitive policies, based on fear and prejudice and not on scientific evidence, go against the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments, including the Constitutions of most African countries. “We should examine the role of the law in fuelling homophobia and justifying hate speech and violence against LGBTI. Where consensual same sex relationships are criminalised, violence against LGBTI persons is often openly encouraged, unpunished and ignored, even by law enforcement,” said Clayton. “These laws fuel homophobia and transphobia and contribute to the isolation, blackmail, harassment, imprisonment and cruel or degrading treatment targeted at LGBTI people”.

In April 2013, civil society groups in the region were outraged by the arrest of Mr. Paul Kasonkomona, a Zambian human rights activist, after he appeared on a MuviTV programme where LGBTI and the impact of the denial of their rights on the HIV prevalence in the country were discussed. Subsequently he has appeared before the Lusaka Magistrates Court facing charges under Section 178(g) of the Penal Code for the idle and disorderly offence of soliciting in a public place for immoral purposes.

“The matter of Paul’s arrest is a classic example of how these repressive laws impact on the ability of civil society organisations to carry out HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for LGBTI people. Not only is the law used to prosecute those who are in consensual adult same sex relationships, but also to harass, persecute and in some instances prosecute groups or individuals who work to further health rights of all citizens, including LGBTI individuals,” added Clayton.

Despite the high level of violence faced by people in consensual same sex relationships, brave LGBTI activists and their allies are coming to the fore to demand protection and promotion of all citizens’ rights in the region, in spite of the dangers they face. They operate at enormous risk to their own safety, contending with beatings, arrests, or prison sentences to demand equality and non-discrimination regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. “From Botswana to Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, South Africa and numerous other countries in the region, individuals and civil society groups are marking the day against homophobia and transphobia by mobilising support against violence and calling for tolerant societies that are respectful of diversity,” added Clayton.

“We call on African governments to affirm that all Africans have equal rights and are equally entitled to the enjoyment of their human rights as captured by the philosophy of ubuntu (“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – “A person is a person through persons,” said Clayton. “We therefore call on political and other leaders to strongly condemn all forms of violence, including acts based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Governments should work closely with civil society to promote tolerant societies, which respect sexual and gender diversity by educating citizens on their rights, educating police officers, prison officers and other law enforcement officers and the judiciary on the protection of human rights and increasing access to justice for individuals at higher risk of violence. Governments should also strongly condemn hate speech by all, including religious and cultural leaders, and prosecute those who incite and perpetrate violence against LGBTI.

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