This year’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) finds us at a perilous time on our continent. This year in its infancy has seen the passing of two restrictive, intolerant and oppressive legislations that target the rights and freedoms of African women and men that don’t conform to heterosexist constructions of sexuality, gender and expression. The Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (2014) signed into law on January 7 in Nigeria, and the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) signed into law on 24 February have set a precedent for increased bigotry towards people with different sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions. In these two countries alone, trans-identifying and queer individuals, as well as human rights defenders that advocate for the rights of all people, have borne the brunt of merciless attacks on their personhood, their safety and their property. States tasked with protecting and safeguarding the rights of vulnerable citizens have stood by and watched while women and men live in fear and have offered no recourse for lesbian, bisexual, trans, gay and intersex people who face danger daily.
State oppressions continue to spread, with many African countries threatening, and taking steps to introduce and stiffen not only homophobic and transphobic legislation, but also other rights and freedoms that state constitutions and international agreements guarantee. Civil society spaces for activism and expression are shrinking, with our governments limiting our freedoms to assemble, to protest, to run and operate Non-Governmental Organisations and censoring the media. Nine political bloggers who are part of the Zone 9 collective were arrested in Ethiopia in late April. The bloggers are accused of ‘working with foreign human rights activists’ and ‘using social media to destabilize the country’. If prosecuted under Ethiopia’s controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, they could face the death penalty. This is cause for alarm on the continent, where the media plays a big role in exposing government misdoings and gives citizens a voice to challenge the status quo.
There is a crisis of safety and security in the Central African Republic (CAR) which is embroiled in a civil war that has been raging on since December 2012. South Sudan also finds itself in an ethnic war that has seen over 1000 South Sudanese people, both military and civilian, killed since December 2013. For months now, women, children and men in these countries have known no peace or safety, as their governments and military uprisings fight for power and access to limited resources, amidst rising frustrations over poor governance, ethnic tensions, and failing economic structures that leave majority Africans poor and perpetually disadvantaged. Kenya has also seen a rise in militant acts of terrorism, with several bombs and grenades in crowded places being detonated around the country, and the rampant shooting of Kenyans gathered at public social spaces. This has led to a general state of unease, has increased xenophobia in the country and has encouraged the government to use extreme police force and increase police presence in the country. The Kenyan government, in its attempt to crack down on ‘terrorists’ is tightening people’s abilities to move and encouraging that all Kenyans ‘spy on’ and report each other of any suspected ‘terrorist acts’ in what they call the Nyumba Kumi (Ten House) initiative. In March 2014 Aden Duale, a member of parliament in Kenya likened homosexuality to an ill as bad as terrorism.
More recently is the abduction of almost 300 school girls from a school in Chiboke, Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. This gross human rights violation, while horrendous is nothing new to the continent. The political unrest and failed state security structures have led to an increase of human trafficking across the continent-with the highest figures coming from West Africa, and Nigeria in particular. Most of the people trafficked out of the continent and sold into sexual slavery are women and children. The impunity with which the Boko Haram militants declared their actions, the suspicious way in which the Nigerian government has handled the crisis, and America’s offer for military intervention, are indications that there are bigger, far more sinister issues underlying this mass abduction of girls. This violation also speaks directly to the issue of bodily autonomy and agency of citizens, which includes children. Inhabiting female bodies makes girl children vulnerable in patriarchal structures of governance that devalue female bodies, and use women and girls’ lives as weapons of war and political bargaining chips. The issue of bodily autonomy is one that the Coalition of African Lesbians has been advocating for and is shifting conversations in various spaces. The Coalition of African Lesbians is critically aware that this issue manifests in multiple ways and across all national, cultural, religious, sexuality and economic structures in Africa-and needs to be made a presently urgent issue for discussion with our governments.
We cannot honour this day without considering the various human rights issues that we face, as individual people or States-but also our collective struggles as a continent. We are a continent at war with ourselves, and the time to act, to raise our voices and to initiate change is now. Now more than ever, we need to give cognisance to the state of affairs in Africa, whether they directly speak to issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or not. These struggles are all our struggles, because we know that an injustice to one, is an injustice to all. While the global theme for this day is ‘Freedom of Expression’, we recognise that we cannot freely express ourselves as Africans, let alone as queer Africans. Deep change needs to happen on political, socio-cultural, religious and spiritual levels to allow us demand the right to express ourselves freely, in countries and communities that will honour this right and that will allow us to do this safely.
As we commemorate IDAHOT this year, we also need to celebrate the brave women and men that have stood in the face of injustice and not wavered. We salute the passion of human rights defenders, of communities, organisations and individuals that have shown solidarity with fellow Africans targeted for abuse and injury. We recognise the importance of considering the variety of issues that intersect and overlap with the targeted mistreatment of people of non-normative sexuality, gender identity and expression. We celebrate small victories, and pay homage to those that we have lost to the fight for justice and freedom for all African people. Although the continent is in a state of strife, we have seen tremendous acts of courage across the continent. From the activists in Uganda that filed a petition against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, to the protestors in Kenya that faced repeated police brutality while marching against State sanctioned economic reform that would leave the poor poorer and the rich richer. We continue to show resilience, resistance and courage in the face of increased oppression. This needs to be celebrated on this day.
On this day we also say, enough is enough, this is not the Africa we want, and we call for Africa to arise and unite and bring back Africa. The Coalition of African Lesbians stands behind the Mayibye iAfrica Statement, and calls for the return of Africa and a call for self-determination, an embracing of diversity and for justice. We encourage all our members, our allies, our friends and fellow civil society to sign onto the Mayibuye statement, and show unity of purpose and action in calling for change and the renaissance of Africa.
We wish all our members a day of peaceful remembrance and reflection, as well as a day of celebration and thanks-giving.
In strength and solidarity,
17th May, 2014