In March, police in Dar es Salaam, acting on orders from Tanzanian Deputy Health Minister Hamisi Kigwangalla, arrested 19-year-old William (not his real name) for posting a video on Instagram that led the deputy minister to believe that William was gay.
Homosexual conduct carries a life sentence in Tanzania, though until recently, the law has rarely if ever been enforced.
The police interrogated William about his sexual history.
Then they took him to a government hospital where, William said, a doctor forcibly subjected him to an “anal exam,” purportedly seeking “proof” of his alleged homosexual conduct.
“One police officer stayed in the room” during the humiliating examination, William said in an interview. “It was painful.”
The kind of physically invasive “test” that William underwent should not take place in the 21st century.
It was invented nearly 150 years ago by a French physician who believed that anal examinations could demonstrate signs of “sexual deviance.”
His unsubstantiated theories were roundly dismissed by the next generation of French doctors, and continue to be rejected by medical experts.
Sadly, forced anal examinations seem to have found a home in parts of Africa. Human Rights Watch has identified cases in which medical practitioners, at the behest of police or prosecutors, have carried out these unscientific tests in the past five years in at least seven African countries that criminalise consensual homosexual conduct — Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia.
Rights violations related to sexuality
But there is new hope that African countries may discard this outdated practice. The biannual meeting of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights wrapped up in May in Niamey, Niger, with commendable advances in its approach to human-rights violations related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Among them, the commission introduced its official legal guidance (General Comment No 4) on the right to redress for torture victims, which describes forced anal testing as sexual violence that amounts to “a form of torture and other ill-treatment.”
It condemned such examinations as prohibited under article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As every country in Africa has ratified this treaty (except Morocco, which is expected to do so soon), it is now time for all African countries to heed the Commission’s guidance on the application of the treaty.
Commissioner Lawrence Mute of Kenya, chair of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa, also presented a report that echoes the UN Special Rapporteur on torture in affirming that forced anal testing is “medically worthless and amounts to torture and ill-treatment.”
The report highlights the worrying use of anal exams of suspected gay men in Tanzania and Tunisia in December 2016, and in Kenya in 2015.
The African Commission’s condemnation follows a series of recent criticisms of the practice by UN agencies, human rights experts, and medical experts, including the World Health Organisation and the Independent Forensic Experts Group.
The voices of defenders of forced anal exams seem increasingly few and far-between.
Even the doctors who carry out the exams often have doubts. One Ugandan police surgeon, when asked what he was looking for when conducting forced anal exams, told Human Rights Watch:“That’s the problem. What am I to check for? I just examine them because they’re being sent to me, but what they do in their bedrooms is not my business. It’s not an examination that can determine much.”
As human-rights institutions vocally condemn these exams, governments — even those that remain reluctant to decriminalise homosexual conduct — will find it difficult to continue to come up with excuses for the abusive practice.
During its most recent Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, the Tunisian government accepted a recommendation to stop carrying out these exams on people suspected of homosexuality.
Pressure from civil society played a key role: just weeks earlier, Tunisia’s National Council of the Medical Order had issued a statement at the urging of Tunisian and international human-rights organisations calling on doctors to stop conducting such exams without consent.
The African Commission has taken an important step by recognising that forced anal exams are abusive.
It should follow up by using its own review process to challenge member states that conduct these exams, and should investigate countries where the abuse is particularly widespread – like Egypt, where gay men and transgender women arrested on “debauchery” charges are systematically hauled before the Forensic Medicine Authority and subjected to this violation of their dignity.
It should also investigate countries that have only recently jumped on the anal examination bandwagon, like Tanzania, which is in the throes of an unprecedented crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Forced anal examinations to “test” for homosexuality have no place in Africa in 2017, and the commission has made it clear that under African human-rights standards they are a torturous rights violation. All African countries should ban this practice.
Neela Ghoshal is senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch