Senegal Country Context

DAKAR: A Desk Review on the Context of LGBTQ Rights

February 2020

This rapid desk review was prepared to explore the context of LGBTQ rights and advocacy in  Dakar for future work in Senegal. Specifically, the desk review looks at the following areas: 

  • Legal, political, and economic context 
  • Movement context  
  • Public discourse and media 
  • Research capacity 
  • Security considerations

1.1 Legal, political, and economic context

Senegal is governed by civil law and has an independent judiciary.  The constitution defines Senegal as a “secular, democratic, and social” republic.[1]  The president is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of the government.  Senegal is decentralised into 11 administrative regions headed by a governor and certain government authorities vested in regional assemblies.[2]

The constitution asserts that the human person is sacred and that equality before the law shall be guaranteed and that fundamental freedoms of the individual (Article 8) as well as freedom of association and collective rights shall be protected (Article 12).   In this connection, Senegal is a signatory to several international and regional treaties: Senegal has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and others.

Sexual relations between men as well as sexual relations between women are illegal in Senegal with “unnatural acts of with a person of the same sex” criminalised by Article 319 of the Senegalese Penal Code[3]; such crimes attract heavy financial penalties.  LGBTIQ persons have faced arrest and criminal prosecution.  The government has failed to protect LGBTIQ people from violence[4].  However, in 2013 a judge in Senegal said there was insufficient evidence to convict four women alleged to have been kissing in public.[5]  Nonetheless, there are few places in Senegal where LGBT people can feel safe.  LGBT people live with the fear of being kicked out of their places of residence.

Though Dakar is perceived as a place where lesbians might have more freedom and opportunity, patriarchal culture is a significant barrier to the advancement of lesbian rights. [6]

Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country without any sort of extremist religious movement and with a high level of religious tolerance[7].  In 2016, 20 Islamic organisations asked for more stringent laws against homosexuality[8].

The outrage against representations of adultery and female body autonomy in television series such as Maitresse d’un homme marié (Mistress of a Married Man) points to the suppression of women’s voices in public discourse by the combined forces of patriarchy and conservative religion.[9]  Olivia Codou, cofounder of the Nopiwouma (“I will not shut up”) movement, noted that the difficulty women in Senegal have in speaking out curtails the possibilities of such a movement in comparison to the volubility and visibility of the #MeToo movement in other countries[10].  However, social media provides an outlet for women to talk about assault and domestic violence, many for the first time.  While the #Doyna (“that’s enough”) hashtag trended, its founder, Fatima Zahra Ba noted that few women can break the silence about the abuse they have suffered.  She characterises public discourse on gender and sexuality in Senegal as a “culture of silence”. (Citizen TV Kenya, 2018)  Oudenhuijsen (2018)[11] observes that “through a careful adherence to the Senegalese value of sutura (discretion, modesty), by making use of play, and by displaying respectability, homosocial spaces ranging from the relatively private home to the fairly public football field allow for the occurrence of same-sex intimacies.

[1] Constitution of the Republic of Senegal Adopted on 7 January 2001

[2] Visiting the Senegalese Legal System and Legal Research: A Human Rights Perspective

[3] Senegal: The situation of sexual minorities in Senegal, including societal attitudes and whether there is a difference in the treatment of lesbians and gay men; state protection (2010-April 2013)

[4] “Senegal: Law Promotes Violence Against Homosexuals”, HRW 2010,

[5] Senegal judge frees women accused of violating law banning homosexual acts

[6] Lesbians in Senegal just want a place where they can be themselves, PRI 2017.

[7] Understanding Senegalese Exceptionalism and Religious Tolerance. Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 2012.

[8] “Islamic organizations in Senegal ask for tougher laws against gays”, Sandiego  Union Tribune, 2016.

[9] “Senegal’s fear of outspoken women”. Africa is a Country. 2019.

[10] “The Me Too movement was silent in Senegal. These women are trying to change that”. Citizen TV, 2018.

[11] ‘’You Have to Know How to Play, Otherwise They Will Catch You’’ Young Women and the Navigation of Same-Sex Intimacies in Contemporary Urban Senegal. Loes Oudenhuijsen . African Studies Centre, Leiden University. 2018.

1.2 Movement context

From the secondary sources, there seems to be only one lesbian rights group, the Sourire de Femme (Woman’s Smile). Women and lesbians were left out of the organisations (mainly MSM) formed in response to the HIV crisis which resulted in them later being left out of the sexuality debate (PRI 2017).  Links between lesbians and gay rights groups are hampered by a traditional culture of patriarchy (ibid.).  Heterosexual women’s rights groups exclude or stigmatise lesbians (Mackay, Robinson, 2019[1]).  LGBT groups tend to focus their efforts on public health, that is, HIV/AIDS. (ibid.)

Association Prudence focuses on the LGBTI community of Senegal by advocating for equality, protesting, and securing legal representation for those facing discrimination.[2] The Senegalese League for Human Rights (LSDH) advocates for and reports on human rights in Senegal and emphasises the need for observational access to places of detention or imprisonment with the aim to ensure state accountability for protecting the rights of male and female prisoners[3].

There is an apparent dearth of national LGBT+ human rights organisations (Mackay & Robinson, 2019):

“This is not a strong gay and lesbian movement. It’s in tatters at the moment, and they are not unified, and they are not speaking the same language. In some cases, they’re not even talking to each other. They’re in hiding, basically. Everything has to be done secretly, so it’s not a good time to come out talking about decriminalisation and creating a strong LGBT movement, at a time when people are already incensed.”

[1] Angotti, N., McKay, T., & Robinson, R. S. (2019). LGBT Visibility and Anti-Gay Backlash. Sociology of Development, 5(1), 71–90.

[2] SENEGAL LGBTI RESOURCES. Rights in Exile Programme.

[3] Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Thirty–first session 5–16 November 2018,

1.3 Public discourse/media environment

In 2014, the Senegalese government ruled that “art exhibitions which address the issue of homosexuality must be closed or canceled.”[1] It is significant that, in 2018, the author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, published a novel De purs hommes (Pure Men) which explicitly references and fictionalises recent violent and discriminatory attacks against homosexuals in Senegal in an effort to expose and indict Senegalese homophobia.[2]  The recent context of that novel is the rise, in 2010, of demagoguery, fueled by political and religious leaders, aimed at inflaming public anti-gay sentiment.  Senegalese media reportedly exacerbated this by their bias towards hate-mongering.[3] (HRW 2010)  In 2013, actress Dieynaba Diop discussed the outrage of her playing the role of a lesbian woman and emphasises the religious and social concept of “our culture” as being the lense through which  homosexuality and gender are understood in Senegal.[4]

The prominence of MSM organisations in government efforts towards HIV/AIDS prevention has the effect of exposing those affiliated with such organisations to reprisals from hostile actors.  Greater LGBTI activity and voice in public discourse can be seen to increase the vulnerability of such persons. HRW 2010 observes that:

“In February 2008, Icône, a monthly Senegalese gossip magazine, published more than 20 photos from a party that had taken place in 2006. It claimed the people in the photos were homosexuals engaged in a “gay marriage” ceremony. Several faces were recognizable, and other media republished the pictures in ensuing weeks […]”

The result of these and other such events is an open hostility towards LGBTI persons with arrests, harassment, and violence being common.  Public discourse is characterised by “moral panic” that gripped Dakar and the rest of the country in 2008.

The Constitution guarantees press freedom and Senegal’s press is considered one of the strongest and most diverse in West Africa[5].  It is ranked 49 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index. However, journalists have still jailed for reporting especially if such reports are politically sensitive. (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2005).  Because decriminalisation of press offences is yet to occur, Senegal’s press is considered “partly free”[6]  Le Soleil, one of Senegal’s main daily newspapers, has published MSM-related articles (Mackay & Robinson, 2019[7]) and reported the publication of photos of a gay wedding by Senegalese magazine, Icône, which led to an anti-gay backlash.

[1] “Senegal Censors Homosexual Art”. Artnet. 2014.

[2] “Gay life in Senegal”, Africa is a Country, 2018.

[3] “Fear for Life”, HRW, 2010

[4] “10 years after the release of the film Karmen-Gai, dieynaba diop who held the lead role says “Karmen, if it was again, I will never have done again””, <>, 2013

[5] “Attacks on the Press in 2004 – Senegal”, Committee to Protect Journalists, 2005

[6] “Senegal”. Freedom of Press. 2015.

[7] Angotti, N., McKay, T., & Robinson, R. S. (2019). Lgbt Visibility and Anti-Gay Backlash. Sociology of Development, 5(1), 71–90.

1.4 Research capacity

Some of the organizations conducting research on LGBTIQ issues are, the national lesbian rights NGO, Sourire de Femme which documents the lives of LBT women in Senegal and maintains a database on violence and rights violations.  National women’s rights NGOs include Society for Women against AIDS in Africa (SWAA Senegal), WILDAF Sénégal.  National human rights advocacy organisations include Rencontre africaine pour la défense des droits de l’Homme (RADDHO).

International rights organisations publish much of the research on sexuality and gender in Senegal.  Such organisations include the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

Environnement et Développement du Tiers Monde (ENDA), one of the oldest NGOs in Senegal created the first explicit MSM HIV/AIDS prevention program in 1999.  AIDES Senegal also provides MSM support.  Much of the research into LGBT responses to HIV/AIDS was done under the aegis of the Ministry of Health (Mackay & Robinson, 2019).

1.5 Security considerations

In the wake of Senegal’s LGBT crackdown, a trans woman states that she is unable to go out during the day for safety reasons.[1]  There is physical violence against gay men and sexual violence towards women (The Daily Beast, 2018).  Based on the reported frequency of arrests of LGBT persons and recent anti-gay backlash, any work in the city would have to pay specific attention to partners’ physical safety and attempt to possibly secure assurances from the government that research can be carried out without risks of arrest.  Senegal has not forced the dissolution of any NGO since 2000[2].  There are no restrictions on foreign NGOs provided that they do not pursue a goal contrary to international human rights conventions signed and ratified by Senegal (The International Center for Non-Profit Law, 2019).

[1] ‘I Don’t Go Out During the Day’: Inside Senegal’s LGBT Crackdown Reviled, exiled, jailed, rape. The Daily Beast. 2018

[2] Civic Freedom Monitor: Senegal. The International Center for Non-Profit Law. 2019