The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Africa

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NEW YORK- In June the United Nations launched Free & Equal, a global public education campaign promoting equality  for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups. This initiative is a joint effort between the United Nations’ Human Rights Office and the Purpose Foundation. Their goal is to raise awareness  of the violence and discrimination LGBT people face, and to promote greater respect for their rights. One of their focus points is the criminalization of same-sex relations . They want to repeal laws that criminalize consensual sex between same-sex adults and release any individuals imprisoned for this offense.

In two-thirds of African countries (38) homosexuality is illegal and considered a criminal offence. In several countries, including Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria, male-and-male relationships are punishable by death. In many other countries, homosexuality carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. In Uganda there have been repeated attempts to pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would impose the death penalty on homosexuality and would also incriminate any person who witnesses a homosexual offense and does not report it within 24 hours.

Even in countries where homosexuality is not criminalized, LGBT populations still often experience discrimination and abuse. Hate crimes against homosexual people by civilians are common and often go unpunished. The lack of government and police intervention for these crimes is a serious problem.

On a trip to Africa in June, United States President Barack Obama spoke with several government leaders on the issue of homosexuality. Obama met with Senegal’s President, Macky Sall, in a joint press conference. He urged President Sall to consider providing rights to lesbian and gay individuals. Sall’s response was, “We are not yet ready to decriminalize homosexuality.”

However, it should be noted that not all African countries are alike. The first country in the world to ban discrimination based upon sexual orientation was South Africa in 1996. What causes these vast differences in attitudes? A report from Amnesty International points to colonialism and the subsequent adoption of Western values and practices as part of the problem.

Same-sex relationships and diverse sexual identities have always existed in Africa as they have everywhere else in the world. Woman-and-woman marriages have been documented in over 40 ethnic groups, and a 2000-year-old painting portraying male-to-male sex was found in a cave in Zimbabwe. It is in fact Western religious and political views that have been sustained by leaders in African countries that promote the criminalization of homosexuality. They sometimes claim that homosexuality is “un-African” when in fact the history of these oppressive beliefs dates back to colonialism.

Most colonizing European powers imposed their own criminal codes on the African communities where they settled. “In most cases, laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct in the colonized parts of Africa reflected the law of the colonizing power, which drew on prevailing Christian moral strictures.” Amnesty International.

As the U.N. and leaders from industrialized nations such as the U.S. push for changes in legislation and fight for the human rights of LGBT populations, it is important to remember where this discrimination came from.

Lisa Toole

Sources: UN, ILGA, Policymic, Amnesty International
Photo: Huffington Post

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