The perception of homosexuality as a “problem” has, for many years, been accepted as the status quo within much of East Africa. But even in this region of the world, where discussing sexuality of any description remains largely taboo, things are slowly starting to change — and the vanguard of that change is occurring in Rwanda.
Dr Aflodis Kagaba is the executive director of Health Development Initiative Rwanda, a health-focused non-governmental organisation located in Kigali that spearheads a coalition of over 40 groups conducting campaign and advocacy work for sexual minorities within the country.
He told The EastAfrican the campaign began a couple of years ago in 2009, when Rwanda started to talk about criminalising same-sex relationships as part of revisions to its Penal Code.
“Around that time in the region, there was a drive to criminalise homosexuality — not only in Rwanda, but also in Uganda and Burundi,” he said. “All the parliaments in the region took up the cause to create articles to criminalise [it], and so when the article was introduced, there was a lot of pressure.
“In the beginning, of course, it was very challenging. We were experiencing hate speech, people phoning in to radio programmes saying ‘Kill them, take them back to the West — they’re not part of us.’ But the media themselves were fanatical at that time — so it required more of an individual engagement, talking to them and discussing the issues involved. It was also important to educate them on some of the documents (in the Constitution) showing that people have rights. So for me, there’s an issue of lack of awareness, and of ignorance of human rights, that needs to continue to be addressed.”
At least in Rwanda, the coalition’s efforts have paid off. After much debate, Rwanda moved to eliminate the criminalisation provision from its draft code last year, and sign the UN Statement on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity — one of only six African countries to do so. The others are the Central African Republic, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and South Africa.)
Rwanda’s stance is in stark contrast to its East African neighbours. Burundi criminalised homosexuality in 2009, while in May, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission called on the Kenyan government to repeal laws that criminalise sex between consenting same-sex couples.
Tanzania, too, retains laws on the books forbidding “carnal knowledge against the laws of nature.” Thanks to the efforts of crusading anti-homosexuality MP David Bahati, Uganda is perhaps the most recent example of this regional trend — although the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, proposing the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality, remains at the committee stage, the act is already illegal, and carries sentences of up to 14 years in prison.
But it is perhaps curious why Rwanda — a country where Christianity, and especially Catholicism, still represents a strong influence — should have taken the lead in this respect.
Kagaba suggests the country’s recent past is a factor in the government’s willingness to crack down on discrimination. “Recently, I was in Kenya at the Changing Faces conference, which had activists from all over Africa. Mostly, they advance cultural reasons for the difference; religious reasons, too. But I think the main reason is that Rwanda has a very strong historical memory of what discrimination can do to any particular group, which for me is why I think their response has been very positive, in contrast to the other countries in the region. [It seems] the government has learned from its history that any discrimination against any particular group can cause more negative consequences, and I think that’s why the leadership was very responsive on this issue.”
Accurately judging attitudes to homosexuality prior to 2009 is difficult, Kagaba says, due to the lack of discussion in society. “If you talk to older people, they tell you that homosexuality has always been prevalent in society — but it’s hidden, ‘managed’ in secrecy’,” he said. “It’s really only been since 2009, when they started talking about the penal code, that there has been public discussion of the issue — and it was only then that the media started reporting the issue, and we began to see the evidence of homophobia.”
The divide between older and younger generations is gradually starting to expose a willingness to discuss such issues more openly — driven, as in so many other fields, by the freedom of expression encouraged by the Internet. “There’s a difference between older and younger generations,” said gay student Charles Ngabo, 24. “There is more information available — you can see it’s not something ‘wrong’ with you.”
Ngabo said the greatest source of problems remained inter-familial. “It’s like having a shameful secret — it’s not easy. Attitudes have changed in the last few years — since 2004 or so, but you still find negativity.”
Colleague Franck Cyiza, 23, agreed. “There is still abuse, harassment, discrimination if you’re gay, but not a lot,” he said. “[But] I think to really change, it will need the government to enforce anti-discrimination laws.
Dr Kagaba emphasises there remains considerable progress to be made, highlighting the fight against ignorance as a particularly important task. “The most difficult part is that it requires engaging the culture, and the fact that you need to get everyone,” he said. “Even people who are supposed to be human rights activists don’t necessarily understand it — we found some didn’t really regard it as an issue of rights, but rather see it as a deviation, some kind of psychiatric disorder. And to make matters worse, journalists always like to run to medical doctors here and they say things like, ‘These people (gays) need to be taken to a hospital for treatment.’ And when doctors in rural communities say things like that, people tend to believe that — they don’t read, so when a respected member of society affirms a view like that, it makes it very widespread.
“As a result, one of the challenges we needed to face when we started talking to these communities was that there was an uncertainty about who we were talking on behalf of. So we needed to encourage people to come out and say that, yes, they were gay, and that they had been for 20 years. And that statement leads to questioning and self-reappraisal (for others).”
Moreover, Kagaba is well aware that even with the absence of criminal laws, there remains much stigma and intolerance. “We still continue to do work — we have now projects to do legal aid, projects trying to create awareness amongst healthcare providers, to provide a neighbourly and friendly environment for any LGBT figures who go to seek healthcare,” he said.
“At the same time though, we also want to encompass a grand vision of looking at the police, since they are key in terms of law enforcement, and we need to look also at young people, and engage them so they can be made aware of the issue and avoid the stigma.”
Ultimately, eliminating that stigma is difficult — perhaps impossible — while the government remains passive. “The key is that the government provides protection,” Kagaba said. “If the government can go ahead and provide a protective legal environment, then the activists will do their work throughout East Africa, easily. But at the moment, without that framework, there is a lot of pressure on them not to speak, or in the case of Uganda, give negative statements. But the Rwandese case shows it doesn’t have to be the case.”