Sexual and gender minorities remain dangerously vulnerable to human rights abuses across much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite immense legal and cultural barriers, civil society activists around the continent are rising up to improve the lives of LGBTI people. Brian Pellot spoke with two leading activists in Uganda and Botswana.
Barigye Ambrose is a Uganda-based LGBTI and human rights activist. He works as field director and reporter for Kuchu Times Media Group, a Ugandan news platform that focuses on LGBTI issues. He is a certified community peer educator on gender and sexual minority health issues. Before joining Kuchu Times, he served as administrative officer for Spectrum Uganda Initiatives.
Bradley Fortuin is the communication and documentation officer at Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LeGaBiBo), the country’s first LGBTI rights organization. He is also co-founder of the annual Batho Ba Lorato LGBTI human rights film festival.
Brian Pellot: What factors are currently preventing the realization of full and equal human rights for LGBTI people in your country?
Barigye Ambrose: Culturally, Ugandans are so strongly opposed to the issue of homosexuality. Many argue it is a western import meant to wipe out the African traditional family. We’ve seen an influx in cases of hate crimes, both physical and verbal, towards sexual minorities. The majority of the population is still hesitant to accept that LGBTI people deserve respect like any other citizen.
Politicians have also used LGBTI issues as a sacrificial lamb to gain political seats. They promise their electorates that once they reach parliament they will fight homosexuality. Section 145 of the Penal Code Act criminalizes “carnal knowledge...against the order of nature” with life in prison. Other laws also sideline sexual minorities, making it hard for LGBTI people to trust the judiciary.
The influence of anti-gay campaigns by local and foreign conservative evangelicals and religious fundamentalists has also played a big role in sidelining rights. These religious leaders demonize anything concerning LGBTI people, telling congregants that gay people take money from the West to recruit children into homosexuality, that homosexuality is part of a western agenda to depopulate our continent, that LGBTI people are the cause of all Uganda’s problems and that God is punishing us for allowing it to continue.
Such messages have made Ugandans hate LGBTI people even more, and all this has led many suspected LGBTI individuals to flee the country in fear of persecution, stigma, arbitrary arrest, and rejection from friends and family.
Bradley Fortuin: LGBTI persons are penalized under Section 164 of the Botswana Penal Code, which prohibits “carnal knowledge...against the order of nature.”
Botswana, being an African country and cherishing traditional and cultural norms, has always used these norms to oppose homosexuality. People say homosexuality is not an African thing, that it’s imported from the western world.
The average person in Botswana believes that homosexuality is illegal because of this law, confusing same-sex sexual activity with issues of identity. That promotes stigma within our communities. A lot of health care workers think that if they provide services to LGBTI persons they will be putting their jobs at risk, so they just send them away untreated, even though everyone is legally entitled to fundamental health rights.
The media also plays a large role in shaping what society thinks about LGBTI people. The national television and radio stations report on LGBTI situations in Uganda and South Africa but don’t report on us because of assumptions that there are no LGBTI people in Botswana. Laws and how people interpret them also create barriers. Many organizations are reluctant to work with us because we deal with LGBTI issues.
Who are the main civil society actors lobbying for the rights of LGBTI people in your country and who is supporting them?
Barigye Ambrose: These include a large number of local LGBTI organizations such as Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), Freedom & Roam Uganda (FARUG), Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, Icebreakers, and Rainbow Health Foundation, all mostly supported by international funding bodies including Hivos, the Arcus Foundation, the Astrea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, and more.
Our main allies are Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), Chapter Four Uganda, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET), other mainstream human rights organizations, human rights activists, lawyers, diplomatic missions, and some progressive faith leaders.
Bradley Fortuin: We at LeGaBiBo have pledged our lives to the LGBTI community. We’re like gladiators with rainbow flags. The Botswana Network on Ethics Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) housed us until our registration came through and are very active in this space. The Center for Human Rights (DITSHWANELO) works on these issues, as do organizations that provide health care for MSMs like the Mathambo Centre for Men’s Health. Rainbow Identity Association is the main group focused on trans and intersex issues.
Most of our funding comes from international donors and two or three regional donors. These include the British High Commission and U.S. Embassy in Gaborone, OSISA, Hivos, The Other Foundation, the AIDS Rights Alliance of Southern Africa, Outright International, and American Jewish World Service.
Locally, we’ve created the key population coalition, which consists of all the local organizations that deal with LGBTI issues. We also work with some progressive churches, media personnel, and health care workers that provide friendly services to the LGBTI community. LeGaBiBo is also part of the Ministry of Health’s steering committee and works with the National AIDS Coordinating agency.
Regionally we are a member of Pan Africa ILGA (PAI), the Coalition of African Lesbians and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHER).
LeGaBiBo would not be here if not for these various partnerships, which help us reach LGBTI communities in difficult places, change public perceptions, and learn about what other groups are doing internationally.
What challenges and threats are these civil society actors facing and how are they working to overcome them?
Barigye Ambrose: The Ugandan government has set up strict laws making it hard for LGBTI rights organizations and their allies to operate freely. One example is the NGO Act of 2016, which was introduced to fight LGBTI rights advocacy after the Constitutional Court struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Other factors hampering our work include economic fluctuations, which affect budgeting, threats from the Directorate for Ethics and Integrity, arbitrary arrest, unlawful searches, and intimidation of LGBTI rights defenders and allies.
We have managed to keep working in this hostile and unpredictable environment by setting up security committees and procedures to protect staff and documents. We also engage different government departments, make statements when situations arise, and hold public sensitization campaigns to fight homophobia and transphobia. This has catalyzed a solid networking force both locally and internationally, and a lot has been achieved through this united force.
Bradley Fortuin: Botswana’s Employment Act was amended in 2010 to stop people from being fired because of their sexual orientation. This was a progressive step, but it leaves out trans and intersex communities. One of our main social obstacles is the church. In the last elections, the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana pledged to campaign against any politician who advocated for LGBTI rights. That demotivated a lot of politicians we’d made partnerships with who were afraid they would lose votes.
When you look at South Africa their laws are very good on paper, but people aren’t always as open or accepting as you might think. In countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya, where leaders explicitly state their negative opinions, LGBTI people are killed and imprisoned. While some leaders are very outspoken against LGBTI rights, ours in Botswana remain mostly quiet on the issue.
This article is part of our dossier How LGBTI activists fight for their rights worldwide.