Blackmail, excommunication, mob violence, torture and rape. These are the realities Nigeria’s lesbian and bisexual women face – and they have become progressively worse since the passing in 2014 of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA).
This is according to Akudo Oguaghamba, executive director of the Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative and co-chairperson of Pan-African International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Oguaghamba cites examples. “Two women suspected of being in a relationship were forced by their supposed friends to have sex in public. Pictures were taken, some of which were posted online. We’ve had incidents where women were lured by hoodlums – who posed as women online – raped and pictures taken of their naked bodies. Others are robbed, raped and extorted. One family locked their young sister in the house for weeks, forcing her to proclaim that she is no longer attracted to women. During this time she was physically and verbally abused – even after she denounced her sexuality.”
In addition to the country’s women being “disproportionately affected by poverty, gender-based violence and sexual reproductive rights abuses”, Oguaghamba says “lesbian and bisexual women are often faced with the double stigma of being women and possessing a sexual orientation that is contrary to Nigerian societal norms, which are highly patriarchal, hyper-religious and conservative. So, apart from having to navigate patriarchy and sexism, we have to work and live around the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.”
Signed into law by then-president Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014, the Act ostensibly aims to prohibit same-sex marriage. In reality it goes much further: it not only prohibits same-sex cohabitation and any “public show” of a same-sex amorous relationship, but also imposes a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who “registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations” or “supports” the activities of such organisations.
A recently released report by Human Rights Watch, titled Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe, looked into the effects of the Act on the county’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The study found that, “while the colonial-era criminal and penal codes outlawed sexual acts between members of the same sex, the [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act ] effectively criminalises LGBT persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity”.
“Many LGBT individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that, prior to the enactment of the [Act] in January 2014, the general public objected to homosexuality primarily on the basis of religious beliefs and perceptions of what constitutes African culture and tradition. The law has become a tool used by some police officers and members of the public to legitimise multiple human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people.
“Human Rights Watch research indicates that, since January 2014, there have been rising incidents of mob violence, with groups of people gathering together and acting with a common intent of committing acts of violence against persons based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act] contributes to a climate of impunity for crimes committed against LGBT people, including physical and sexual violence.”
Human Rights Watch’s Wendy Isaack is the author of the report. “The Nigerian Criminal Code Act of 1990 contains provisions dealing with Offences against Morality committed by men that carry terms of imprisonment of up to 14 years,” she wrote. “The Sharia Penal Code, adopted by several northern Nigerian states, prohibits and punishes sexual activities between persons of the same sex, with the maximum penalty for men being death by stoning, and for women, whipping and/or imprisonment. Our findings demonstrate that the [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act], in many ways, officially authorises abuses against LGBT people, effectively making a bad situation worse.”
Oguaghamba concurs with Isaack. “This law has been interpreted and misinterpreted by the police, landlords, family members, in schools and by employees. This has worsened the situation of lesbian women and drew a lot negative attention to masculine-presenting women.”
Ngozi Nwosu-Juba is a board member of the Vision Springs Initiatives. Although the organisation initially focused its efforts on promoting and securing the rights of women and girls, Nwosu-Juba says: “Following our experiences, especially with the passing of the [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act], it became mandatory to build capacities of LGBT people, who were facing all forms of violations, hence our programming in that direction.”
Nwosu-Juba says this shift was largely a result of “organisations working with men who have sex with men are receiving most of the attention due to HIV prevalence, as this group is at high risk. So far, however, no one has committed to studying or researching some of the issues lesbian and bisexual women face.”
Although there might be scant research, there are organisations that, despite legislation prohibiting their work, are working – often with very little in the way of resources – to improve the lives of lesbian and bisexual women.
Atilola Owen is a sexual and reproductive rights activist, who heads the organisation Faith Initiative, “a group of young African feminists whose vision is to contribute to the national and global promotion of the human rights of vulnerable persons, especially women in Nigeria”.
“The [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act] is a very draconian law, which makes it difficult for us to render services property. Many community members don’t even know there are organisations such as ours that offer services that cater to them,” she says.
In addition to the organisation’s work to inform more LGBTI people about their rights, particularly in rural areas, it also initiated a two-week football competition, which brings together lesbian and bisexual women from the eastern parts of the country.
Says Owen: “We essentially use it as an opportunity to build their self-esteem and empower them, but also to bring them together and foster unity.”
The sports event also fosters unity between the women participating in it and the broader society. “The atmosphere is always cheerful. And the fact that the community attends and is supportive makes it a really great way to bridge divides.”
Julia Chukwu, who did not want to give her real name, is a Nigerian-based legal practitioner and executive committee member of the Coalition of African Lesbians.
“It is very difficult for organisations working with LGBT people in Nigeria to function, but there is a strong presence. They’re really trying, but what has been the impact on the community and larger society? It’s good to empower LGBTI people, but we need to change the mind-set of people.”
A study released in October 2015 shows that attitudes are shifting – slowly. Titled A Closer Look at Nigeria: Attitudes on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People, the study, put together by the Bisi Alimi Foundation, noted: “In 2015, 87% of Nigerians supported the [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act]. However, polling about this issue has been occurring since the law was in planning stages, starting in 2010, and measures of support have been steadily declining ever since. In 2010, 96% of respondents supported the [Act], 92% in 2013 and 87% in 2015.”
Chukwu says active steps are soon to be taken to challenge the constitutionality of the Act.
“A core group of activists are in the process of challenging clauses within the [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act] they feel are unconstitutional. For example, the Constitution allows for the right to freedom of association, but the [Act] has stated in its provisions that [people] cannot have LGBTI clubs, groups or gatherings. This is affecting the work of organisations working within the community on, for example, HIV prevention and treatment.”
Whether this challenge yields the desired results remains to be seen. Until then, activists like Owen will continue their fight.
“You know, since this Act was passed in 2014, so many women I know want to leave Nigeria to find shelter somewhere else. But not everyone can leave Nigeria.”
“Besides,” she says, after a slight pause, “I don’t believe in running. If we all leave here, who is going to be left to conquer this? Who?”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian