By Cían Nihill
Mary Conteh has been ignored by fellow human rights activists in Sierra Leone, and has had her offices and home broken into, simply because she sought rights for women and gay and lesbian people.
At a conference in Dublin, which is organised by Frontline so that human rights defenders can share their stories, Ms Conteh laments that she would not have received the same warm welcome at a similar event in Sierra Leone.
“With human rights colleagues, we do not see eye to eye – most of them go at me and they call me names. They do not want people to talk about gay and lesbian issues,” she says.The lack of support her organisation (the Women’s Centre for Good Governance and Human Rights) has received from “colleagues” gives some indication of the difficulties she has met in advocating such controversial issues.
In November 2010, after Ms Conteh spoke on radio about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, a group of men forcibly entered her home. When they didn’t find her, they manhandled her brother. The attackers asked for her, telling her brother they wanted to take her life.
She fears for her safety and that of her only child, Marie Josephine (4), she says.
“Unless I go and pay other people to come and stay in the house, because I am a single parent, I can’t live in the house alone. Even the security, I don’t trust them. I pay them but at times they come and at times they don’t.”Less than three weeks ago, the offices of her organisation were broken into. Computers and sensitive documents were taken.
“They think that if they steal everything that all of us will scatter and there will not be an office anymore and there will be nobody to talk about this gay and lesbian thing.”A native of the rural Bombali District in northern Sierra Leone, Ms Conteh witnessed her mother being killed during the civil war in in 1994.
She saw women being oppressed all around her during her growing up years. It motivated her to join the women’s centre, of which she is now director.
In recent years, major strides have been made towards equal status for women who now hold the right to own land, take out loans and bail people out of prison. “In the rural areas they are improving at a very gradual pace – authorities have started seeing the need to empower women.
“The lesbian and gay rights issue – near nothing is moving forward but the only thing is that we have started talking about it.”For the latter to gain momentum, recognition must first come from fellow human rights campaigners in Sierra Leone, she says.
“Because we have taken that direction, most of them have abandoned us including the human rights commission in Makeni in Sierra Leone.According to a 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Freetown, released by Wikileaks, "societal prejudices, rather than legal consequences, keep homosexual orientation hidden."
“The human rights commission don’t give us any protection. Any time we are attacked nothing has been done.”
"There are no current initiatives to revise, eliminate, or enforce current legislation, and post was unable to contact any groups that advocated for or against gay rights. Web sites posted by groups in the past appeared inactive, and it is unclear if a lesbian activist killed several years ago was specifically targeted for her political activities, or simply one more victim of crime."
"Human rights programs similar to those that advanced women's rights and acceptance for HIV sufferers might help sensitize the population to support gay rights, but might also backfire by energizing groups interested in copying anti-gay rights movement in Uganda and elsewhere. Sexual orientation remains hidden, and it is unlikely that gay Sierra Leoneans will coming out in the open in the near term."
"A number of Sierra Leoneans, even those with considerable exposure to Western culture, said that homosexuality does not exist locally, and any cases were due directly to Western influence. The few Sierra Leoneans who admitted knowing someone they believed to be homosexual said that in no case would anyone openly admit it, and if they did, they would be shunned by their families and friends and possibly threatened by community members. Unfortunately, Sierra Leoneans contacted on this issue were all heterosexual, as attempts by post to locate any openly gay nationals failed."