By Marc Epprecht
New laws in Nigeria and Uganda, plus reports throughout the continent of extortion, murder, so-called “curative rape” and abuse of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex) — and their allies — are deeply concerning to many people, in and outside of Africa.
While Africa is not alone in this apparent trend, the vehemence of some of the homophobia, and the way it is being linked to pan-African struggles against Western imperialism, is striking. Not surprisingly, many people now view Africa as the most homophobic continent in the world. It is commendable that so many want to help in the fight against state-backed repression of sexual rights. Before rushing in, however, let’s keep four things in mind.
First, Africa is not a country. It is 54, 10 of which have signed the 2008 United Nations declaration recognizing sexual orientation and gender identity as human rights, including two which had originally opposed it but switched sides in 2011 (Rwanda and Sierra Leone). Consenting male adult homosexual acts are legal in 14 African countries, while female-female sexuality is largely ignored outside a handful. In 2004, Cape Verde joined South Africa in decriminalizing sodomy while Botswana and Mozambique have made discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexuality unlawful.
The country of South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world for protecting human rights and was a co-sponsor of the United Nations’ 2011 initiative to develop global strategies to end violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. One can be skeptical about international human rights statements and the reliability of the police and courts, especially for the poor majority. But important symbolic victories have been won in recent years across Africa, and in some cases policy reforms have been substantive.