The collateral damage in Africa’s anti-homosexuality laws

“We know where your children go to school. We are going to rape your daughters and turn your boys into homosexuals if you don’t stop defending the pedes (faggots).”

“If you don’t get your husband to stop defending these dirty homosexuals, we are going to rape your children.”

These were just some of the threatening messages Cameroonian human rights lawyer, Michel Togué and his wife received in 2012 by people opposed to his continued fight for the rights of the country’s queer people.

Article 347 bis of Cameroon’s penal code punishes “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” with “imprisonment from six months to five years and fine of from 20 000 to 200 000 francs”.

Most people charged with homosexuality are convicted “based on little or no evidence,” says a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, Guilty by Association: Human Rights Violations in the Enforcement of Cameroon’s Anti-Homosexuality Law.

“At the time, there were many people being arrested in Cameroon on suspicion of being gay and I was one of the lawyers defending them,” says Togué.

The threats were accompanied by photographs taken of his children, two boys and two girls, then between the ages of eight and 15, at their school. The prospect of these actually being carried out, became too much for Togué.

After two months of the family not leaving their house (“we were scared of what could happen if they caught them … raped them”), Togué decided to relocate his family to the United States while he remained in Cameroon.

“It traumatised us as a family. This kind of situation can only bring fear – can only bring sadness – to a family. When they arrived in the U.S, my wife had to see a psychologist because she was experiencing a kind of trauma. It was really difficult for her to be calm; to be able to sleep. This time was really, really difficult for the family.”

The effects of anti-homosexuality laws on women and children has been highlighted in a recently released report, titled ‘Diversity in Sexuality – Implications for Policy in Africa’.

The report was put together by the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf), which provides “evidence-based science advice” to government and other stakeholders on “matters of critical national importance”.

It found evidence that such new anti-homosexuality laws “precipitate negative consequences not just for LGBTI persons and communities, but for societies as a whole”. These included “the rapid reversal of key public health gains, particularly in terms of HIV and AIDS and other sexual health programmes, increases in levels of social violence (and) some evidence of reduced economic growth.

Harry Dugmore, director of the Centre for Health Journalism at Rhodes University, is the report’s researcher and author also observed that these laws also led to the “diversion of attention from sexual and other violence against women and children” was merely an “observation”.

Stressing that this was only an observation and not a finding, he added: “There is definitely a correlation between violence against women and children and these repressive laws. The data is very suggestive of this.

“To bring in a contextual point, homophobia is best understood as a mechanism to defend patriarchy – where men are superior and there are very strict roles, with women and children having little or no power. Alternative sexualities challenges patriarchy.

“Gay men challenge patriarchy because they challenge gender norms and say to straight men that there are different ways of being a man. It is hard to prove there is a one-on-one correlation between the two, but generally in countries that have anti-homosexuality laws, there are often horrific rates of violence against women and children.”

The study was undertaken in collaboration with – and endorsed by – the Uganda National Academy of Sciences.

Mutyaba Gloriah is the programmes officer at the Ugandan queer rights organisation, Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG).

“There has been an effect on women and children in that, when the (Anti-Homosexuality) Bill was passed, we got a lot of support from the international community. Part of this support was the threat of sanctions and this has had a big effect on vulnerable women and children, because they are the lowest income earners,” says Gloriah.

Following the passing of the Bill (before it ultimately being overturned on a technicality), the World Bank postponed a $90-million loan for the country’s health services. Following suit, other countries, including Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, cut aid to the country.

Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBTI rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, says: “No other country has been subjected to this kind of sanctions before. It might be contentious thing to say, but there was probably added pressure because of this to nullify the Bill.”

Whether or not there is truth to this “contentious” statement, for Gloriah, the effects of cuts in financial aid was something she saw first-hand.

“Lesbian, bisexual and transgender women use the feminist movement as space to penetrate and advocate for a broader voice. But when the Bill was passed, it said any organisation or person that is aware of an LGBT person and does not report them could face imprisonment. So what happened was that many women’s organisations which had persons working with LGBT persons in their programming had to stop that aspect of their programmes, which saw them losing money.

This money was also being used to help other women who are not sexual minorities, but who are minorities in other areas, such as sickness, living with a disability or being victims of war,” says Gloriah.

A month after the country’s Anti-Homsexuality Bill was introduced, Ugandan academic and human rights activist, Sylvia Tamale, delivered a speech at Makerere University in which she focussed on the impacts it could have on broader human rights in the country.

The speech saw Tamale pointing out her agreement with certain points raised in the preamble to the Bill, such as strengthening the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the family unit and the need to protect Ugandan children and youth who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

She added, however: “While I agree that we must seek ways of dealing with issues that threaten our families, I do not agree that homosexuality is one of these issues.”

For Tamale, the real issues that threatened the Ugandan family unit included traditional healers believing in the power of child sacrifice; 90% of Ugandan experiencing domestic violence and defilement; 50% of child sex abuse reports involving children below ten years of age, with perpetrators being heterosexual men known to the victims; the millions of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS; rising poverty levels and the “all-powerful patriarchs that demand total submission and rule their households with an iron hand”.

Offering an example of how the pervasive nature of patriarchal beliefs extends beyond merely households, Gloriah says: “Our finance officer is a heterosexual woman, who is passionate about women’s rights broadly. The passing of the Bill has affected her greatly. She has had threats, not only against her, but her family as well.

“She has gotten a lot of hate mail and calls. At one point, a letter was slipped under her door. The letter said, ‘we know you are working with homosexuals and you know it is not right. We are not going to be giving you money to teach our children these things. If you do not leave this neighbourhood, it could cause you danger’. It has really affected her family life, because she leads a much more private life than before, because she cannot move freely.

“She is discriminated against at social event, by family and friends. So, basically, she is facing the same discrimination we face, yet she is a straight woman. All this for simply doing her work.”

Human Rights Watch’s Wendy Isaack says: “There is a level of exposure when working as a human rights activist in countries such as these. People’s lives are threatened when supporting LGBTIQ work.”

Isaack, whose report ‘Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe‘, was released in 2016 and focussed on the effects on Nigerian LGBTIQ communities of the 2014 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA).

“The purported aim of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) is to prohibit marriage or civil unions between persons of the same sex and impose criminal penalties for persons convicted of entering such a union,” says the report.

“In reality, its scope is much wider. The law forbids any cohabitation between same-sex sexual partners; bans any ‘public show of same sex amorous relationship’; and prohibits anyone from forming, operating, or supporting ‘gay clubs, societies and organisations’. Punishments are severe, ranging from 10 to 14 years in prison,” it found.

Juliet Bar, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says: “The Act has definitely affected the rights and accessibility of women in minority groups: women with disabilities, women who have suffered violence since the Boko Haram insurgency – especially in the Northern parts of Nigeria.

“These women have not been able to access any form of health care to enable them to deal with the psychological effects of going through that insurgency. Many were raped, so issues like addressing their psychological trauma is not looked at by government. A lot of women were internally displaced and giving birth to children after being raped during the insurgency by Boko Haram soldiers or counter insurgency activities by government soldiers.

“And this is something that is very, very key: government attention is not there. Because of the sentiment attached to LGBTIQ issues, government gets people to forget other societal issues and policies government should really be talking about.”

Pierre Brouard, deputy director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, is, however, not convinced.

“This is difficult to quantify. How does one prove, for example, that resources are going to are going to one thing, when it could go to another? It is a difficult argument to make, even if it does make logical sense.”

Isaack, too, is loathe to comment on the possible effects of anti-homosexuality laws on women and children. “We have not conducted research into it, so do not have the evidence for me to comment either way.”

She adds, however: “During my research in Nigeria, gay men had reported that, in cases where they enjoyed family support, these family members were inevitably threatened by community members. They would be threatened with being forced out of their communities because they were seen to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality.”

For Togué, defending the rights of queer people has seen him forced to live apart from his wife and children. Five years after the “really, really difficult” period that led to their separation, Togué says: “My wife and children have adjusted to it. I visit them twice a year. It’s hard, but we have adjusted.”

As to why he chose not to relocate with them, Togué pauses before saying: “My purpose is to challenge the law. And one of these days, it will be removed. I need to continue doing this work. For me, it’s a duty.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian 

The Other Foundation

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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