Archive for Nigeria

On Being LGBT in West Africa

By Philip Rodenbough, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Columbia University.  Twitter: @prodenbough

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The Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) is a program organized by the US Department of State through which students work part time on a project under the direction of a mentor at State, USAID, embassies abroad, or other government agencies. The e-internship is completed entirely online, so anyone can participate from anywhere. During the previous academic year, VSFS offered over 300+ positions to students, many of which were human rights related projects.

Through VSFS, I was fortunate to participate in an independent research project on the LGBT experience in West Africa, with the guidance of a USAID mentor. Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, I researched country conditions, collected media reports, conducted interviews, and authored original detailed descriptions on the LGBT experience in West Africa. This research was developed to to help form baseline data that informs on the needs of the local LGBT communities, in addition to assessing the impact of future programming.

West Africa LGBTUSAID has always been committed to global prosperity, and in recent years that commitment has grown to include a focus on LGBT communities. On December 6, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies abroad to ensure that US diplomacy promotes and protects the human rights of LGBT persons. Later that same day, Secretary Clinton delivered an historic speech on the human rights of LGBT individuals while commemorating Human Rights Day. Secretary Kerry continued to advance this cause by participating in the first UN ministerial event on LGBT rights. USAID has responded to such leadership by launching its LGBT Vision for Action as part of its policy framework for 2011-2015. Perhaps most hearteningly of all, Secretary Kerry recently announced the appointment Randy Berry as first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. It was a pleasure and a privilege to complete this research project in the broader context of increasing inclusiveness of LGBT issues at the US Department of State and at USAID.

During the course of my research, I found homophobia is rampant, discrimination is frequent, and stigmatization is common against the LGBT persons in West Africa. In some countries, legal barriers prevent LGBT persons from equal treatment. Where no formal barriers exist, strong negative social attitudes are often strong and pervasive enough to achieve the same end. Political leaders are generally hostile towards LGBT persons and virtually all countries in the region categorically reject official calls from the UN to respect the human rights of LGBT persons.

LGBT communities do vary from country to country within the West Africa region. Based on the research in this project, the situation for LGBT persons is best in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Cote d’Ivoire, where there is relative tolerance and freedom. The situation is worst in Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria, where LGBT persons are actively castigated and/or imprisoned. The case in Nigeria is particularly troubling due to the recent enacting of more severe anti-LGBT laws. Mauritania has the harshest anti-homosexuality laws and the subject remains strictly taboo, as it similarly does in Niger and Guinea.

Despite these challenges, there is still hope that the situation can improve. Most countries do have active pro-LGBT groups working to change the public mentality. Additionally, pro-LGBT opinion pieces do occasionally appear in local media. LGBT leaders in the region all express a common willingness to partner with development organizations such as USAID. Robbie Corey-Boulet, an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow studying LGBT advocacy in West Africa (whose works are often cited in this project) argues that these groups are often in need of small seed grants in order to find and promote their voice. Donor requirements such as official recognition by the state and previous experience managing large grants prove problematic for these emerging LBGT organizations. Despite the difficulties they face, LGBT leaders in the region are optimistic that over time they can work together to build a more inclusive and more equitable society.

As a student in a highly scientific and technical degree program, this project was a great opportunity to gain exposure in human rights research. My interest in West Africa stems from my Peace Corps service—I taught high school chemistry in Guinea and Burkina Faso from 2009 to 2011. Although my doctoral project is focused on synthesis and characterization of clean energy materials, my interests extend into science policy, international development, and human rights. My work with VSFS has provided me a greater appreciation for commonalities in seemingly disparate communities, LGBT or otherwise.

I am pleased to share with RightsViews the full and final report from my VSFS internship: Being LGBT in West Africa Project.

LGBT Equality in Africa: Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

By Kristen Thompson, student at Columbia University

“We are holy, angry people, and we are singing for our lives”

Activists in NYC protest new anti-gay legislation outside the Nigerian Mission to the UN

What do you do when your government is trying to criminalize your identity?  For Nigerian LGBT rights activist Ifeanyi Orazulike, the answer is: fight back.  On Monday I joined Ifeanyi and other activists outside the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations to protest the anti-gay “Same-Gender Marriage Bill” passed by the Nigerian Senate, which currently awaits the approval or veto of President Goodluck Jonathan.

But this bill is not really about marriage.  It broadly defines “same-sex marriage” as including all same-sex relationships, and charges people who “witness,” “aid” or “abet” such relationships with imprisonment for up to five years.  It’s a modern day witch-hunt, which puts LGBT rights activists and HIV/AIDS service providers for the LGBT population, like Ifeanyi, in particular peril. This is insult on top of severe injury – today Nigerian same-sex relationships are punished with up to 14 years in prison in some regions, and with lashing and death by stoning in others.

Ifeanyi heads the International Centre on Advocacy for the Right to Health (ICARH), which provides HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, outreach and education services to men who have sex with men (MSM) in Nigeria. Even in the midst of this political maelstrom he told me he is eager to go back home because there is much work to do, even though he knows his life is in danger.

Today he and fellow activists solemnly sang in front of the mission and passersby: “We are holy, angry people / We are singing, singing for our lives.”

Pride and Prejudice

Nigerian LGBT rights activist Ifeanyi Orazulike

I met Ifeanyi when he spoke at a SIPA event I organized with the Human Rights Working Group, GLIPA, and others on November 22nd called Pride and Prejudice: Perspectives on Homophobia and LGBTQI Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Betsy Apple, Adjunct SIPA Faculty Member started the discussion with a few sobering statistics:

  • Roughly one-third of all countries in the world criminalize homosexual conduct or identity.
  • Five countries prescribe the death penalty to same-sex sexual conduct.

She said, “Criminalization criminalizes identity; when you are an illegal person, it’s very difficult for you to do everything, from love who you choose, have access to health and education, have freedom of speech and movement and expression, be able to participate in the public life of your country, be able to protect yourself from violence and discrimination.”

The film trailer of Call Me Kuchu (trailer below) clearly illustrates this struggle unfolding for LGBT rights in Africa. It highlights Ugandan activist David Kato, who was recently brutally murdered after a Ugandan newspaper printed the names, addresses and photos of LGBT activists alongside the headline “Hang Them.”

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27391482[/vimeo]

 

Homophobia and the Spread of HIV/AIDS

For Ifeanyi, the words and images of Call Me Kuchu strike close to home.  He held back tears as he discussed the struggles ICARH faces in combating HIV/AIDS in Nigeria – MSM face stigma and discrimination which cause them to avoid seeking care altogether.  This is especially problematic in a country where the HIV prevalence rate among MSM is 13.5%, three times higher than the national rate.

Dr. Cheikh Traore, Senior Policy Advisor for Sexual Diversity and HIV/AIDS at the United Nations Development Programme underscored the problem of homophobia in combating HIV/AIDS, sharing the results of a  2009 study on MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana which showed MSM are more vulnerable to HIV due to human rights violations against them.  They are blackmailed by health workers after disclosing their sexual orientation and face physical violence, including by government or police officials.  All this adds up to MSM being further discouraged from seeking health care services.

From Hand-Wringing to Action

Jessica Stern, Director of Programs at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission rounded out the panel.  As the first researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch she conducted fact-finding missions in South Africa, where she reported on the brutal murder of a 19-year old lesbian who was beaten and killed by a mob in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town.

Jessica noted that this happened in South Africa, a country which outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation and is also the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage. In South Africa, transgender men and lesbians are often still targeted for violence and discrimination.

So, what can we do when law and policy only go so far in protecting LGBT rights? Jessica offered some suggestions:

  • Educate the public about their rights.  If people don’t know their rights – to HIV treatment, social services, and privacy, for example – it’s very difficult to access them.  They must also be aware of their government’s anti-LGBT policies so that they can best protect themselves.
  • Train authorities.  In many countries, police target transgender women for discrimination.  They may also refuse to take reports on crimes against LGBT people.  It’s critical to look at how laws are being implemented on the ground and have a proactive strategy for using them to affirm peoples’ rights.
  • Build stronger movements.  Lived experience is essential to any strategy, and activists working on the frontlines know what needs to be done. Jessica left us to ponder, “How can we interrogate our different places to contribute in solidarity with local struggles?”

Feel free to leave a comment below.  How can we interrogate our different places in society (school, internship, job, social network, etc.) to contribute in solidarity to local LGBT struggles?  What are your thoughts on the topic? 

Kristen is a Master of International Affairs Candidate ‘13 at Columbia University, concentrating in Human Rights.  She is the incoming President of GLIPA (SIPA’s LGBTQ group).