The Globe: Africa's Struggle Over Gay Rights

Gay rights activists secured a major victory during Pride Month as Botswana’s High Court struck down the country’s long-standing law that prohibited homosexuality. While this is a major coup for the LGBTI community in Africa, it still has numerous battles to fight.Countries accross the continent still maintain discriminatory policies that fine, jail, and execute people engaged in non-hetero relationships. Hopefully more victories can be secured for a people long oppressed by society, but such a change will not come easily. 

The contienet has a long history with homophobia, primarily dating back to the colonial era when Europeans brought their laws and customs to the land. Indeed, homophobia in Africa prior to the 1500s seems to be quite rare according to scholars. Same-sex relationships were a common practice in African society and the traditional gender roles most of us are familiar with were non-existent: men could be wives and women could be husbands. Nonetheless, opponents of LGBTI rights argue that overturning these laws will break the fabric of society. 

Previously in Botswana, section 164 of the country’s penal code stated that “‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature,’ brought a sentence up to seven years in jail, while Section 167 declared that “‘acts of gross indecency’ -- whether in public or private -- a punishable offense with up to two years in prison.” But after an anonymous petitioner brought their case to the country’s highest court, with the support of the local non-governmental organization (NGO) LEGABIBO.

Africa’s evolution on gay rights has been confined to the southern part of the continent. South Africa was the first to decriminalize homosexuality back in 1996 when the post-apartheid government wrote the country’s new constitution and then legalized gay marriage a decade later in 1996. Over the next two decades since 1996, South Africa’s neighbors have slowly followed in its footsteps: Mozambique, Lesotho, Madagascar, Angola, and now Botswana no longer penalize same-sex behavior/relationships; however, none of these countries have gone as far as South Africa in recognizing same-sex marrage and civil unions. 

The same progress can not be said for the rest of Africa, however. The LGBT community face extensive persecution throughout other African countries. Sudan, parts of Somalia and Nigeria,  all carry the death penalty for engaging in such behavior (Mauritania also proscribes the death penalty, but does not apply it). Besides facing the executioner’s block, the gay community can face jail time from a minimum of 14 years to life in almost 30 countries (Nigeria and Somalia included). The gay rights movement also faced a setback in Kenya as that nation’s court system Obviously, the LGBT movement still faces monumental danger in their quest for equality and many of these states will not change

To ensure further progress is made in decriminalizing same-sex relationships, the international community (IC) can keep this trend continuing. International pressure, for instance, has played a pivotal role in preventing African states from enforcing draconian measures. Back in 2010, Uganda’s Parliament was slated to vote on a law that would invoke “the death penalty for HIV-positive people” found guilty of engaging same-sex intercourse. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni faced wide-spread criticism from Western allies such as the United States and Canada and promptly agreed to amend the law. The key factor that forced Uganda to amend the law was the threat of Western money leaving the country. Foreign investment is critical in supporting the East African country’s budget. Without that money, Uganda’s economy and political stability would be in jeopardy. 

Non-governmental organizations also play a crucial role in the promotion of LGBTI rights. Amnesty International, for example, held world-wide demonstrations calling for the Taiwanese government to legalize same-sex marriage, which they subsequently did in back in May. When NGOs get involved, as was the case with LEGABIBO, they are able to provide legitimacy and crucial legal support to activists which encourages governments to reconsider their policies. 

NGOS and the international community can also help by providing asylum to those trying to flee persecution as I discussed previously in my article on Chechyna’s malicious targeting of the Republic’s gay community. LGBTI refugees in Kenya are placed in camps operated by the United Nation’s refugee agency to keep them protected against possible attacks by the general population. Many of these refugees come to Kenya from neighboring countries such as South Sudan and Somalia where conditions for both the LGBTI community and the population as a whole is intolerable due to instability.  

Finally, simply educating the populous on the subject goes a long way in ensuring acceptance of the LGBTI population. One of the main fears Africa has over gay rights is the potential for the spread of HIV/AIDs and other STDs. The continent is the epicenter of the crisis. According to Avert.org as of 2017, there are 19.6 million people with HIV living in East and/or South Africa, with 800,000 new HIV infections and 380,000 AIDS-related deaths. Many of the recent cases of HIV infections are not associated with the gay community. Only 21 percent of all new cases are connected to people who either participate in the sex trade (whether they are clients or the worker), are gay men, and people who inject drugs, while 79 percent is associated with the rest of the population. 

Fortunately, even though HIV/AIDS continues to be ever present danger to society, East and Southern Africa are on track to “meeting the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets” because as of 2016, 81 percent were aware of their HIV status, of which 81 percent were on treatment for their condition and another 79 percent “achieved viral supression.” It is crucial that NGOs and foreign countries continue to supply African states at the heart of the HIV/AIDs epidemic with the resources and knowledge so that it can continue to meet the UN targets. 

Progress is being made in advancing the rights of the LGBTI community, but it may be years if not decades before every country abandons their draconian laws. Long-standing sentiments established by colonialists centuries ago still linger in the minds of millions of Africans. To ensure that everyone in the birthplace of humanity is treated equally, the members of the IC that must continue putting diplomatic pressure on the states that are still persecuting people who are merely trying to live their lives, along with providing access to life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS. No one should have their lives destroyed for being true to themselves