There’s a new report out by Human Rights Watch on Gay Rights in Burundi – which in pretty dire straits at the moment after a law passed earlier this year criminalising homosexual behaviour and making it punishable by up to two years in jail. The law was heavily promoted by the party of the President, Pierre Nkrunziza, who is, surprise surprise, a born again Christian. As well as shepherding the provision through the legislature, his party organised anti-homosexuality protests in Bujumbura. This report, which includes photographs and the stories of young gay Burundians, makes incredibly powerful reading, and I would strongly recommend it.
Unfortunately, such restrictions are far from unusual in Africa; only South Africa allows same-sex marriages, and Cape Verde, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, CAR and Gabon, Madagascar, and Rwanda allow homosexuality. That’s only 13 out of 53 countries in Africa. (Disclaimer: This information came from wikipedia). Politicians in many countries, including neighbouring Uganda, have been fairly strident in their opposition to allowing homosexuality. Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister (bloated cabinets? Heaven forbid) recently claiming that it represented ‘moral destruction’ (h/t wronging rights). Even where it is legal, gays and lesbians face significant problems and discrimination – the BBC has recently produced a number of articles on the horrifying and little-punished practice of ‘corrective rape’ in South Africa.
This issue has obvious Human Rights implications, but, as the report points out, the problems caused by discrimination go deeper than a simple ban on sex. Young gay people risk economic problems if they are deliberately failed by their teachers or kicked out of home by their parents; it is this fear of economic marginalisation, as much as that of social marginalisation or retributive violence by individuals or the state, that keeps them closeted. Worse still, it creates problems in preventing HIV/AIDS, as gay people may be uniformed about how to prevent infection, or may fear going for tests, meaning the infection spreads further. This law will make things far worse – making it even harder for gay people to access information on safe sex, and making it dangerous for them to report rapes – something which, this report makes clear, is a common occurrence for both men and women.
However, because I don’t want to end on a downer, I also want to draw out something positive. Many of the young people interviewed say that even if their families have initially thrown them out, they have grown to understand, and even where they have not, others have offered help and understanding. Even in unpropitious circumstances associations are forming to support gay people and advocate for change. It may be a long time coming, but I hope that in a decade or two’s time we will look back and see these laws as the last gasp of repression.