Making love a crime: homophobia in sub-Saharan Africa

Today, Amnesty released a report on the criminalisation of homosexuality south of the Sahara: Making love a crime: Criminalisation of same-sex conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Our report documents an increase in homophobic attacks and harassment across sub-Saharan Africa as well as an increase in efforts to make ‘homosexual acts’ a crime.  38 countries in the region currently have such laws and Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia go as far as to make it an offence punishable by death.  There are ongoing efforts in other countries, such Uganda, to follow their lead.  Our report highlights how many homophobic laws in Africa are actually direct legacies of colonialism.  We also document current funding by the religious right in Western countries who actively fund and promote homophobia in Africa.

The arguments to support these homophobic laws are the same ones that can still be heard in the UK: it’s not natural or normal; it’s perverted; it’s a mental disorder that can be cured; it’s a choice; it’s immoral; it’s against religion or ‘culture’.

The argument that homophobia is a ‘cultural’ belief is no more legitimate then it is for female genital mutilation.  All governments have signed up to international (and regional and even domestic) laws that recognise that all human beings are born free and equal and should not be discriminated against on any other status, which includes sexuality. The 1995 Ugandan constitution, for example, states that: “All persons are equal before and under the law in all spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life and in every other respect and shall enjoy equal protection of the law” (Article 21.1). 

Furthermore, woman-woman marriages have been documented in over 40 ethnic groups in Africa including in Nigeria, Kenya and South Sudan. A cave painting in Zimbabwe depicting male-male sex is over 2000 years old.  South Africa legally recognised same-sex marriage in 2006 and several other countries in the region have introduced laws to ban discrimination on the basis of sexuality or removed discriminatory positions.

Gay rights are neither ‘un-African’ nor a Western imposition.  David Kato wasn’t un-African or Western.  He was a Ugandan LGBTI activist whose photograph was printed on the front page of Rolling Stone magazine in 2010 next to a headline reading ‘Hang them’. Just a month later, he was killed in his home.  In April 2011, Noxolo Nogwaza (a South African gay rights activist) was raped, beaten and stabbed to death.  In the video above (from 2011), the inspirational Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera tells us about her experiences as a gay rights activist in Uganda.

Whilst the UK claims that LGBT rights are an “integral part of the Government’s wider international human rights agenda”, the UK can and should be doing much more to stand up for gay rights and activists.  They could do this not only by directly working with such activists and raising their cases, but also by supporting states to ensure that allegations and reports of abuses are promptly and impartially investigated.  Additionally the UK should be using bilateral and multilateral relationships to advocate against the criminalisation of homosexuality. For example the UK has great influence in the Commonwealth, however 41 of the 54 Commonwealth countries have laws that make being gay a crime and 14 of those are in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UK should also be doing more to get our own house in order.  Whilst the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill continues through the House of Lords, we’ve seen some less than progressive statements from our "representatives".  Yesterday I had to use the special place on my desk to bang my head against when I saw the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’ being discussed which, amongst other things, called for a referendum on same-sex marriages.

For another time I used the special place on my desk, please watch Tony Blair and Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf trying not to talk about gay rights in March 2011.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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