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Sexual Rights in Africa Part 1: Anti-gender rhetoric & Harmful policy

In the last decade we have witnessed a global rise in anti-gender and anti-rights movements and rhetoric in the public discourse that has been exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic. On the African continent, anti-gender and anti-rights discourses have resulted in the promulgation of harmful laws and policy. CAL decries the impact of anti-homosexuality legislation in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria as they relate to sexual rights and the right to bodily autonomy and whose impact has far reaching effects for LGBTI people, sex workers, people living with HIV/AIDS and communities at large. 

‘That we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief… If we are interested in arresting the cycles of violence to create less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, may be made of grief besides a cry for war’  – Judith Butler

The continent provides the right set of conditions for conservative legislation to not only pass in one country, but be replicated in another. This is due to decades of neoliberalism and imperialism, resulting in compromised states that are grappling with authoritarianism, war and religious fundamentalisms.

While the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality bill was overturned by the Ugandan Supreme Court, the recent Sexual Offences bill adopted by the Uganda parliament is awaiting signature from the president. Ugandan lawmakers claim the bill is ‘progressive’ and protects victims of sexual violence by introducing specific clauses that speak to indecent assault, ‘sextortion’, the rape of children and human trafficking. The bill, however, reintroduces clauses on “unnatural offences”, that criminalise homosexuality and impact the lives of sex workers and persons living with HIV/AIDS in the country. While purporting to have a ‘progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ definition of consent, the Bill actually distorts definitions of consent by failing to distinguish between coercive and enthusiastic consent. Furthermore, the Bill recommends the removal of Clause 36 which effectively disallows the withdrawal of consent at any stage of sexual activity. The potential passage of this bill has led to increasing concern by CAL members and partners in Uganda of heightened discrimination and violence against people and communities challenging heteropatriarchal sexualities, and embracing non-normative gender identities and expressions.

Concurrently, another piece of legislation introduced in the same time period as the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality bill, the 2014 Anti-Pornography law, has been struct down as unconstitutional by Uganda’s Supreme Court. The law, often referred to as the anti-mini-skirt bill, had been criticised by various women’s rights organisations for giving rise to attacks on women wearing mini-skirts and for its general censorship of any kind speech on sexuality that could be categorised as pornography.

Ugandan lawmakers, like others on the continent and indeed the world over, have often used the language of ‘protecting women and children’ to continuously deny the right to bodily autonomy and integrity and create moral panics.

Ghana seems to be following in the footsteps of Uganda & Nigeria, with a draft bill called The promotion of proper human sexual rights and Ghanaian family values submitted to its parliament in July. Beyond seeking to criminalise LGBTQ+ persons it also seeks to restrain civil society’s participation in the country by criminalising funding for organisations doing sexual rights advocacy.

Bills and Acts that have been proposed and passed in Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana are not only a moralistic and puritanical endeavour, but have also been supported by Evangelicals particularly from the United States. We have observed similarities in the language and text contained in the Bills and Acts, for example, limiting civil society participation by restricting international donor funding to organisations; protecting the family values and children, and preventing comprehensive sexuality education by determining who can promote ‘proper’ human sexual rights; and instituting community surveillance and instilling fear by requiring individuals to report LGBTQ+ persons to police or face legal repercussions for not doing so.

This year, in both Uganda and Ghana, repression of LGBTQ+ and civil society organising has shown us how politicians, decision-makers and law enforcement aim to distract from their poor response to the pandemic COVID 19 and general mismanagement of national resources by targeting the marginalised to gain political capital. In February the office of an LGBTQ+ community center in Ghana has been raided and closed down by police, 21 activists were arrested. In May, a Ugandan LGBT shelter was raided and 44 people were arrested. These raids exemplifed the precarity, amplified by the pandemic, of the queer community in countries enacting or debating harsh legislation and the shrinking of civil society spaces for debates around progressive ideas and human rights.

There is no denying the very strong ties to neoliberal and imperialist projects in the Global North that  seek  to plunder natural resources by financing authoritarian regimes in the global South – causing harm and eroding a resource and culturally diverse continent by seeking to homogenise and sanitise sexuality. The anti-gender movement and anti-gender politics also work to disrupt decades worth of feminist work on autonomy and the dismantling of institutions of oppression by centering and protecting traditional family values. Feminists like Silvia Federici remind us that traditional family values cannot be delinked from cis-hetero-patriarchal capitalism.

We urge African states to set themselves truly free of colonial legislative frameworks and to redefine nationally and regionally an Africa where the rights of all are respected and upheld.

This statement is the first part of CAL ongoing analysis on the status of sexual rights in Africa. Watch this space for part 2 and 3 in the upcoming months where we will explore more in depth the intersections of sexual rights with issues related to religious fundamentalisms, economic justice and freedom.

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