By Zenzele Ndebele
Hundreds of residents from civil society organisations marched in the streets of Bulawayo on Dec. 1 to mark the 16 days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls . But sex workers and members of gay groups were barred by police from joining the demonstration.
A dozen organisations took part in the event in Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo. The commemoration was organised by the Musasa Project, an organisation that deals with domestic violence, under the slogan "Structures of violence :Defining safety and security for women and girls."
Among the marchers were around thirty men and women from the Sexual Rights Center (SRC), an organisation that advocates for the rights of homosexuals and commercial sex workers. Wearing pink t-shirts emblazoned "Pink and Proud", they were carrying banners calling for the Zimbabwean authorities to respect the rights of sexual minorities.
Sibonginkosi Sibanda of the Musasa Project - which organised the 16 Days event - says the police asked to see the leaders of SRC.
"After the march, one police officer came to me and told me that someone had brought to their attention that we were marching with an organisations that promotes sexual diversity," she told IPS. Police told her that because homosexual acts are against the law in Zimbabwe, they could not be present at an event where speeches that promote homosexuality would be made.
Police officers called the director of the Centre out of the crowd and told her to gather her people together and leave. The SRC's director declined to speak to IPS for this story, or even be named.
Another woman who works with the group spoke on condition that her identity be protected.
"In line with the main theme of the day," she told IPS, "we also wanted to have a hand in fighting violence against women and our main points were fighting against correctional rape of lesbian women and fighting against violence against sex workers.
"We were told the police have something against some of our principles and what we stand for as an organisation. Our main aim in marching was for the women's rights. Are we then saying lesbians and commercial sex workers are not part of society?"
Zimbabwe is one of many African countries in which homosexual acts are illegal; president Robert Mugabe is on record as saying gays and lesbians are worse than pigs and dogs. Zimbabwe, like neighbouring South Africa, there has been a reported increase in what have been termed "corrective rapes" - sexual assaults on women thought to be lesbians.
Some of the other organisations who took part in the march condemned the police action, saying it violated basic human rights. Lawyer Lizwe Jamela says the police did not have the authority to bar the Sexual Rights Center.
"If it was the police that ordered them out, I don't find it in order because it was not a question of [the police] vetting who participates or who does not because they were also [only invited guests at the event]. I think it was just arbitrary. From a human rights point, it's definitely wrong."
There have been a number of high profile violations of gay and lesbians' rights in Africa this year. Malawi sentenced two men to jail after they got engaged in a private ceremony; the men were released, but their trial provoked an outpouring of public ridicule.
In Uganda, parliament is considering a law that would make homosexual acts punishable by death. Several people have been attacked there after their names appeared in a list of supposedly gay Ugandans published by a tabloid.
In November, Mali and Morocco led a vote to remove sexual orientation from a UN resolution against extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions - virtually every other African country followed their lead.
At the end of hte same month, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga unexpectedly told a crowd in his Nairobi constituency that Kenyans found engaging in "homosexuality or lesbianism" would be imprisoned: Kenyan law, dating back to the colonial era, punishes homosexual acts with up to 14 years in prison.
The incident at Bulawayo's 16 Days of Activism event is a reminder of the violence directed against African gays and lesbians in violation of their human rights.