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East Africa’s ‘lucrative’ conversion therapy industry

Hospitals and clinics across East Africa have offered or provided referrals for controversial ‘anti-gay’ therapies to ‘change’ individuals’ sexuality, according to a six-month special investigation coordinated by openDemocracy.

More than 50 LGBT people in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda described their own experiences of what is often called ‘conversion therapy’ – including electric shocks and hormone ‘therapy’ – to local researchers working with openDemocracy. 

In addition, openDemocracy undercover reporters identified 12 health centres across the three countries – including those that specifically seek to reach gay men with health services – where staff offered help to “quit” same-sex attraction.

In Uganda, our reporters who visited three hospitals were told that being gay is “evil”, something “for whites” and a mental health problem; and for a 17 year old gay boy, to try “exposure therapy” with “a housemaid [he] can get attracted [to]’’; and to give a gay teenager a sleeping pill to prevent him from masturbating.

In Tanzania, a counsellor at the Marie Stopes clinic in Mwenge, Dar es Salaam, said, in reference to an undercover reporter’s supposedly gay brother: “A timetable will be set, including the days that he should visit the hospital, until, finally, you find he has changed.”

In Kenya, a counsellor at a Nairobi clinic run by LVCT Health – an HIV and Aids care organisation that markets “evidence-informed programs” – said being gay is “a trend” and that some gay men are “trapped” into homosexuality by others.

She also claimed that “when [gay people] get infected with HIV, some tend to withdraw”, regret and “decide to stop” their homosexuality, and claimed that to “change” the reporter’s supposedly gay brother would take at least five counselling sessions for ‘’kshs 1300’’ ($12) each. 

The LVCT Health organisation has received funding from a wide array of donors, including an $8-million grant from the US government’s PEPFAR programme to tackle HIV and Aids.

‘Inherently degrading and discriminatory’

Efforts to ‘cure’ homosexuality are “inherently degrading and discriminatory” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Africa director at the International Commission of Jurists human rights organisation, in response to openDemocracy’s findings. 

But they are “a lucrative business opportunity for individuals and organisations who are profiting out of humiliating, demeaning and discriminatory actions,” she said. In many cases, openDemocracy found people asked for payment for such ‘therapy’. 

In Kenya, the Fountain of Hope rehabilitation centre outside Nairobi said they ‘treat’ same-sex attraction with a 90-day residential programme costing $23 a day – a huge amount in a country where around one-third of people live on less than $1.90 a day

At this centre, Kalande Amulundu, its founder, told our undercover reporter (posing as the sister of a 19-year-old brother she suspected was gay): “Unusual sexual orientation behaviour, that kind of thing – yes, we deal with those.” 

He suggested the facility could change her supposedly gay brother’s sexual orientation, but that “the best success rate is to get this person to be bisexual.” 

However, when openDemocracy contacted Amulundu separately for comment after this visit, he said that our reporters had been “misled” and that the facility focuses on addiction and mental health and does “not offer any sex/sexuality treatments”. 

“My mistrust towards health institutions is very high. I could get very sick and not go for a check-up.”

Activities to ‘change’ individuals’ sexual orientation have been condemned by more than 60 associations of doctors, psychologists and counsellors around the world. 

Three countries – Brazil, Ecuador and Malta – have banned these practices, while Germany has banned them when applied to minors. The UK government has also recently committed to banning ‘conversion therapy’

East African survivors of these practices described lasting effects on their mental health, family relations and general well-being. In most cases, their own family members had signed them up for these ‘treatments’.

One lesbian woman from Uganda said she was subjected to electric shocks as part of the ‘therapy’ she underwent at a clinic in Kampala. This took place a long time ago, she said, but “the resentment I felt for my family has never really gone away.”

A transgender woman in Tanzania said her mother took her to Sinza Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, where a doctor attempted to convince her that one cannot be transgender. As a result, she said, “My mistrust issues towards health institutions [are] very high. I could get very sick and not go and get a check-up.”

Two interviewees in Kenya recalled being given hormones (to make a gay man seem more ‘masculine’, and to limit a trans person’s ability to present in their gender).

Across the region

Sinza Hospital (which did not respond to our requests for comment) is one of several hospitals in Dar es Salaam in which our undercover reporters found health workers offering to ‘treat’ gay or trans people out of their orientation or identity.

In almost all cases, the ‘treatments’ identified by our undercover reporters in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda consisted of ‘talk therapy’ counselling sessions.

In Uganda, one counsellor also recommended “exposure therapy” with “a housemaid [you] can get attracted [to]’’, and told our undercover reporter to give her supposedly gay brother a sleeping pill to prevent him from masturbating.

Anal sex is criminalised – and punishable with prison sentences – in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Uganda’s recently passed sexual offences bill more broadly bans ”sexual acts between persons of the same gender”, but it is not yet law.

When Samuel (not his real name) was a teenager, he was sent to live in a windowless room in a deserted area on the outskirts of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Here, he says he was given electric shocks and shown pictures of “ruptured anuses and wounded penises” by people who told him that if he didn’t stop being gay, he would “meet the same fate”. 

“I was not allowed to make or receive any phone calls,” Samuel continued. “They also gave me a lot of drugs that made me drowsy and exhausted all the time […] I felt abandoned and was afraid I was going to die.” He lived at what he called a “conversion therapy institute” for a year and a half, and “hated my parents for putting me through that”.

Samuel is just one of more than 50 survivors of anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ practices (which seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity) who shared their experiences with researchers working with openDemocracy on a special investigation into these activities across East Africa – in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. 

“It got beyond overwhelming,” said a lesbian woman from Uganda, who said that she had also been subjected to electric shocks as part of anti-LGBT conversion therapy at a clinic in the capital, Kampala. Although this took place a long time ago, she said “the resentment I felt for my family [who took her there] has never really gone away.”

Many of the interviewees said that family members had taken them to providers of this ‘therapy’. LGBT identities are widely stigmatised in East Africa, and anal sex is criminalised and punishable with prison sentences in each of the three countries.

A transgender woman in Tanzania said her mother took her to a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, where a doctor attempted to convince her that one cannot be transgender. As a result, she said, “My mistrust issues towards health institutions [are] very high. I could get very sick and not go and get a check-up.”

In Kenya, two interviewees described being given hormones (to make a gay man seem more ‘masculine’, and to limit a trans person’s ability to present in their gender).

openDemocracy’s investigation found that controversial ‘treatments’ are easy to find across the region – including at health facilities that specifically reach out to gay men.

openDemocracy undercover reporters were told at health facilities in Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Nairobi that being gay is “evil”, something “for whites” and a mental health problem; to try “exposure therapy” by employing “a housemaid [you] can get attracted [to]’’; and to giving a gay teenager a sleeping pill to prevent him from masturbating.

Survivors interviewed by researchers working with openDemocracy described lasting effects on their mental health, family relations and general well-being. Some said they dropped out of school and lost friends, in addition to enduring painful ‘treatment’. Interviewees came from several generations; some talked about recent experiences, while others described the aftermath of these practices years after they had happened.

These kinds of activities have been condemned by doctors, psychologists and counsellors around the world, says the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), which called them “ineffective and harmful” to mental health. 

Three countries – Brazil, Ecuador and Malta – have banned these practices, while Germany has banned them when applied to minors. The UK government has also recently committed to banning conversion therapy

Electric shocks and hormones

Many of the people interviewed described anti-LGBT counselling or ‘talk therapy’. Some also described physical therapies, including being given hormones and electric shocks.

A gay man in Kenya described how his family “decided that I needed ‘fixing’” a few years ago. “They did not like that I am gay and effeminate, so they got a doctor to give me testosterone to enable me to become more masculine. They would bring random women and force me to have sex with them, so that I ‘enjoy’ sex and become heterosexual. They would tell me how my life is going to be hard as a gay person.”

“I did what my family wanted to prove that I was invested in ‘healing’,” he explained, but “I was constantly moody and angry […] and felt like I hated everyone.”

Several interviewees spoke about receiving ‘therapy’ via places of worship. A woman in Uganda described being “outed” when she was a youth counsellor at her church, which then “advised my family to pay for conversion therapy for me. It was expensive for my family, but they believed it was for my moral good and their reputation.” 

A lesbian woman in Kenya said that her family – who she described as “radical Muslims” – “threatened to take me to a conversion camp to teach me how to be a good Muslim woman”. She said that, in the end, they locked her in a room where she was “forced to fast and pray day and night” They even said “that queer people should be killed.”

Some interviewees described receiving support from local civil society organisations and human rights institutions, which offered help including to speak to their families, to convince them to stop trying to ‘cure’ their same-sex attraction or gender identity. 

In Uganda, a gay man described being given “tablets” that a hospital counsellor said “would replace my attraction to other men with disgust”. To counter such attitudes, he said that more effective advocacy and education initiatives are needed. 

“Training institutions that train psychologists should teach that homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder,” he argued. “There is a need for advocacy about this practice in the same way we do advocacy about HIV.”

Survivors of conversion therapy can contact for support:

  • Kenya: 
  1. The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK)
  2. Ishtar MSM

Contact: +254 20 2497228 cell: +254 713 797 157 

  • Tanzania: 
  1. LGBT Voice
  2. Tanzania Trans Initiative (TTI)

Email:[email protected]

  1. Igniting Young Minds Tanzania (IYMT)

Email:[email protected]

  1. KVP Forum Tanzania

Email:[email protected]

  • Uganda: 
  1. Taala Foundation
  2. Sexual Minorities Uganda

This story was produced by openDemocracy.

Additional reporting by Charles Kombe. Additional research by Joscar Amondi Oriaro, Cairo Kisango, Warry Joanita Ssenfuka, Leah Wamala Mukoya, Leah Mukoya Wamala and Geoffrey Ogwaro

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Lydia Namubiru
Lydia Namubiru, a Ugandan journalist, writes about public policy and the budding technology ecosystem in the East African region. She also teaches data journalism at The African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala. She holds a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu is an openDemocracy East Africa investigative reporting fellow.

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