Gay rights: the ninth MDG?

Date: September 20, 2010
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It may have been the first time an African couple was arrested because they held an engagement party.

In a part of the world where engagement and marriage are momentous occasions and a cornerstone of adulthood, the union of two men in Malawi last December, however, created an uproar that made headlines around the world.

But although Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were eventually freed after international condemnation, hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people throughout Africa continue to live in fear; their plight off the radar.

From Uganda to Zimbabwe to Namibia, African leaders have openly attacked the lgbt community, even going so far, as Robert Mugabe recently did, to referring to homosexuals as “worse than dogs or pigs.”

From these statements – and the actions of religious, political and community leaders throughout Africa – it is apparent that Africa’s gay community is increasingly under threat, and Amnesty International has noted that activists fighting for the rights of lgbt people are often harassed, intimidated and many face arrest, detention and ill-treatment.

As world leaders meet in New York to discuss accelerating progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before the 2015 deadline, they should also take time to ponder which goals might be missing and which communities might be deliberately left out of the current eight goals.

With 38 countries in Africa still criminalising homosexuality (some with the death penalty), it is high time world leaders did something to address this human rights tragedy – and where better than the MDGs?

The MDG Africa Steering Group was convened in September 2007 and brings together the leaders of multilateral development organisations to identify the practical steps needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

It has identified a list of concrete areas to invest in including education, health facilities, family planning, agriculture, infrastructure, fighting disease, and HIV and AIDS, among others. Working with the lgbt community is not on the list.

In Uganda, lbgt activist Frank Mugisha said attempts by Members of Parliament to introduce an Anti-Homosexual Bill for debate means the government has no plans to protect the lgbt community, certainly not under the MDG framework.

“We cannot count on the government of President Museveni to plan for the lgbt community in the country’s MDGs,” he said.

Mugisha said that the police and regular Ugandans now stalk, beat, discriminate against and at times threaten to kill lgbt members of the community, ensuring they are unable to gather collectively to fight discrimination.

Yet in Kenya, the government has taken a different approach, indicating it will conduct a census of the lgbt community (despite homosexuality being illegal in Kenya) to get a better idea of numbers in order to help combat the spread of HIV and AIDS, which is the sixth MDG.

Such a survey would be the first of its kind carried out in Africa, and it would provide important information around the problems of stigmatisation and criminalisation of homosexuality and its effect on fighting HIV and AIDS.

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) have been sceptical of the plan.

“They are obviously going to get information that is underestimated, grossly underestimated, said David Kuria, GALCK Manager. “Our concern really lies with bad laws that discriminate and punish homosexual acts.

The Head of the National AIDS/STI control programme in the ministry of health, Nicholas Muraguri, said the survey aims to gather data to combat HIV/AIDS, noting that the identities of respondents will be kept confidential.

“The information is only for public health use, which is in line with the government’s MDG plan to provide better health services to all,” he explained.

Kenya Minister of State for Planning, National Development and Vision 2030 Wycliffee Oparanya said his government is still searching for funds to facilitate the census.

“The government cannot turn a blind eye on these people,” he said, noting that if the country plans to eradicate poverty by 2030 it will have to coordinate initiatives for the gay community also. “They are part of the society.”

Oparanya called on Kenya’s gay community to come forward as part of the consultation. “The government is willing to listen,” he said.

Yet homophobia is still rife in Kenya and the wider region.

In neighbouring Uganda, the Parliament is still considering an internationally-condemned bill that would toughen already strict laws on homosexuality.

Draft legislation even proposes a three-year prison term for anyone failing to alert authorities if they believe someone they know is gay. There is also a provision that includes punishment for individuals or organisations that support gay rights.

Until now, the only assistance African gays regularly receive comes via international media and diplomacy around major incidents, such as in the case of nine Senegalese gay men and activists who were sentenced to eight years in prison after Senegal hosted an international AIDS conference that included members of its lgbt community. They were later released after France’s President Sarkozy got involved.

But what happens to all those gays and lesbians who don’t make international headlines but suffer discrimination on a daily basis?

Gay rights movements in many parts of the world have had great successes – even in South Africa, where gay marriage is now legal – yet until we institutionalise and protect gay rights within some sort of binding international instruments, gay Africans will continue to be persecuted, killed, beaten, arrested and alienated because of who they choose to love.

So why not start by creating a ninth MDG?

Gilbert Ongachi is a Kenyan journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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