By Gilbert Ongachi
Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga has done it again. Like many African leaders, he’s gone out of his way to endanger the gay and lesbian citizens of his country, thus increasing the likelihood of violence in a region already wracked with myriad problems.
Last week at a Nairobi rally, as the annual 16 Days of Activism to end gender-based violence campaign was kicking off throughout Africa, Odinga called on police to arrest gays and lesbians if they were caught having sex, noting homosexual activity is illegal in the country’s constitution.
Homosexual acts are illegal in many African countries, including Uganda, whose parliament has spent the better part of this year debating an Anti-Homosexual bill which could see gays and lesbians executed.
It is Africa’s silent slaughter. Hundreds of gays and lesbians are raped, abused and murdered every year, simply because of who they choose to love. Meanwhile Africa’s politicians and leaders continue to attack the gay community while paying lip service to the African public, who are calling on them to end gender-based violence.
It is easy to understand why Africa’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community live in constant fear of homophobia, harsh state laws and violence.
In Uganda, a newspaper recently published the names and photos of alleged homosexuals and human rights defenders, calling for their death. As a result, several people were attacked in the country.
In South Africa, a recent march in Soweto brought attention to the widespread rape of lesbians in the country’s townships, which perpetrators often try to justify as an attempt to “correct” the victims’ sexuality.
In Senegal, bodies of gay rights activists who had mysteriously disappeared were exhumed from cemeteries and desecrated, while in
Tanzania the corpse of a transgender woman was put on public display.
Yet in many African countries, incidents of violence that at times lead to the deaths of gay community members often go unreported because the media is also homophobic. Sometime villagers or neighbours of victims refuse to report such incidents to police
Bias and stigmatisation against homosexuals and other sexual minorities in Africa is rooted in deeply-held cultural and religious values. These beliefs translate into abuses, are too often enforced by vigilante violence, and are sometimes enshrined in law.
A case in point is the Zanzibar legal system. A vile law imposes a prison term of up to 25 years for anyone convicted of having gay sex. A gay sex sentence in Zanzibar is the same as murder.
Paddy Stafford works with Stay Awake Network Activities, an organisation that champions human rights, and especially gay rights, in Tanzania, and says there is a continued campaign of harassment and violence against the country’s gay community which goes unreported.
“These cases are unreported because the victims feel insecure to make matters public or to report to police,” he said. “There are no forums for the gay community to amplify these cases as the LGBTI members don’t want to be noticed.”
Victor Mukasa, a gay activist from Uganda who is currently working in Cape Town with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, has experienced real violence and hatred.
“I have been beaten by police several times because I walked past policemen who knew I was gay,” he said. “I did not report the incident because the same policemen would not help the situation as they were homophobic. They would not protect and uphold my basic rights.”
Mukasa said arbitrary arrests and detention, violence and executions of members of the lgbti community have become the order of the day in Africa.
In July 2005 his Uganda home was illegally raided by state agents who searched without a police warrant, looking for incriminating evidence of homosexuality.
Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently told a panel discussing the decriminalisation of homosexuality that the time has come for all human rights activists to share a common duty to counter intolerance and prejudice and demand that attackers are held to account.
“But as important as decriminalisation is,” she said. “It is only a first step. We know from experience in those countries that have already removed criminal sanctions that greater, concerted efforts are needed to counter discrimination and homophobia, including both legislative and educational initiatives. Here again, we all have a role to play, particularly those in positions of authority and influence – including politicians, community leaders, teachers and journalists.”It’s a pity the only role homophobic leaders like Kenya’s Odinga are currently playing is to stoke more violence in their countries and hunt gays and lesbians as if they are criminals. We in Africa have come together before to call for the end to violence based on race, ethnicity or sex. It’s time we came together to end this silent slaughter.
Gilbert Ongachi is a Kenyan journalist. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za