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Homophobia Sweeping Africa Like a Disease, says Rights Group

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Joe DeCapua

The group Aids-Free World says there’s a wave of “homophobia sweeping across Africa.”  It’s calling on the African Union to take urgent measures to stop “a growing and insidious contagion.”

Co-director Paula Donovan says silence on the part of the AU about the issue is similar to silence during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

“The problem is definitely getting worse.  Homophobia seems to be spreading like a contagion from country to country in Africa.  And the efforts to criminalize homosexuality…(have) been taken up by increasing numbers of parliaments and promoted by increasing numbers of African leaders, including heads of state and prime ministers.”

In the news

A number of anti-homosexual incidents have been reported recently in Africa.  Uganda has considered legislation that would impose harsh penalties for homosexual acts.  One measure even called for the death penalty in some cases.  In Malawi, a male couple was prosecuted when their gay relationship became public.  Donovan says other incidents can be found Kenya, Zimbabwe and most recently Ghana.

Paula Donovan, co-director, AIDS-Free World
Paula Donovan, co-director, AIDS-Free World

Bernice Sam, program coordinator for Women in Law and Development (WiLDAF), called for Ghana’s constitution to be amended.

“In Ghana, to our dismay, an advocate for women’s rights spoke publically about the need for the constitution to be reviewed.  She saw a loophole…that would allow gay marriage and that would not allow for the criminalization of homosexuality.  And she said publically on tape that we don’t want gay marriage in Ghana,” says Donovan.

Sam is also quoted as criticizing attempts on the continent to recognize the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.

Donovan says, “We were shocked to hear the statements coming from her.  As I think anyone who is aware of and supportive of WiLDAF’s work would be shocked. You know, you simply can’t categorize the rights of lesbians, gays and other sexual minorities as separate and distinct from the rights of all human beings.  To hear this sort of homophobia being promoted by people who purport to be human rights activists is incredibly troubling.”

30 years later

In the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a number of African leaders stated that homosexuality did not exist in their countries, that it was a matter for Western nations.  Some 30 years later, it remains an issue.

“I’m not quite sure what happened to trigger this new wave of homophobia across Africa.  I think that it probably happens in any human rights debate.  That people who are theoretically in favor of human rights can speak in platitudes and then suddenly, when they see a particular subset of the human population about whom they’re fearful and distrustful, then they start to rethink their general support for the human rights of all people,” she says.

She says many African leaders have embraced the idea of ending stigma and discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS, but she adds the sentiment doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s been pointed too narrowly at people who are already HIV positive,” she says, “We need to understand that stigma and discrimination is what drives people into high-risk groups.  And so, as long as you discriminate against people and drive them into the margins of society, then you’re going to exacerbate your HIV problems.”

She adds that “tolerance, openness and refusal to discriminate have to apply to people before they are HIV positive, as well as after.”

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