This month, civil society representatives from Southern Africa converged in Maputo, Mozambique for the annual Southern African Development Community (SADC) Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (CNGO). Held under the banner ‘The SADC We Want’, the meeting discussed various issues including regional integration, environment, climate change, elections, children's rights and the rights of sexual minorities. The striking issue from the Maputo discussion is the fact that most human rights defenders will not fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights.
Two incidences shocked me. The first shock came in the form of a Member of Parliament who does not agree with the notion of children's rights and blamed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for introducing this western notion into the African society. He concluded his argument by asking, "What are you going to do when your child walks up to you and says she or he is gay?" To my surprise, none of the activists in the room openly commented on this issue, save for some whispers over tea.
The second shock is the double standards that people who claim to be human rights defenders apply to their so-called activism. As is the tradition, after the SADC CNGO discussions, civil society drafts a communiqué that is presented at the annual Heads of States Summit. The communiqué details recommendations from civil society on what Heads of States should act on.
A group of activists proposed that SADC starts respecting the rights of sexual minorities and recognise people of a different sexual orientation. As the chair of the session read out the section on sexual minorities in the communiqué; participants started making noise with a certain group of people demanding that the section on sexual minorities be removed or they would not endorse the final communiqué.
Those who had the guts to cite reasons for their disgruntlement took to the podium and explained that LGBTI issues are not African. One speaker pointed out that same-sex marriages or partnerships are alien to African culture and therefore homosexuality is a western notion.
Another speaker said that people of a different sexual orientation are confused and have an identity crisis. They are often children who yearn to be different or missed something in their childhood.
The issue of morality also came up with one speaker saying that same sex marriages or partnerships are immoral and against the values of any religion. Religious texts such as the bible and the Qu'ran denounce homosexuality. The heated debate went on for some time until the house had to be brought to order by the motion to remove the section on the rights of sexual minorities. A good number of people seconded the motion.
Yet, many Africans are opening up about their sexuality nowadays. The fact that many African countries criminalise same-sex unions means that in most instances, LGBTI people have had to migrate to environments that accept them. This partly explains why in Southern Africa, LGBTI people have migrated to South Africa whose progressive constitution allows same sex marriages. However, they have not been easily accepted due to xenophobia. The increase in hate crimes such as murder, ‘corrective’ rape and physical violence mean that the ‘safe environment’ that South Africa is perceived to be is no longer existent.
We know of HIV and AIDS, malaria and fighting crime campaigns that have been led by celebrities. Yet, there are no visible campaigns for the LGBTI community. Such a campaign must be launched and be led by Heads of States. They should come out in full support of the protection of LGBTI people and create environments within their own countries in which these people enjoy their rights and reach their full potential in all aspects of life. This is what transformative leadership is about.
Those who claim to be human rights defenders need to also understand that issues of sexual orientation are human rights issues too. People have a right to choose what they want and who they want to become. As people with the means, human rights defenders need to also ensure that when fighting for rights in such platforms as the one I found myself in last week, they should also remember the rights of sexual minorities. We cannot be selective about which rights are ‘right’ and which rights are immoral or culturally unacceptable.
Unless we, those who claim to understand what human rights are about, fight for rights of all people, we should not look over our shoulders when people start pointing fingers at us about our double standards.
If as civil society we are going to speak truth to power, we need to speak truth to ourselves and define whose rights we represent. If we cannot represent the rights of sexual minorities, then we cease to be advocates of human rights. There is need for a paradigm shift in the way we think about rights and whose rights we defend.
We need to cultivate a culture of tolerance in society. While we have been responsible for cultivating a social climate of prejudice and stigma against LGBTI's, we can also be agents of change that promote inclusiveness.
Our leaders need to be at the helm of the campaign for the rights of sexual minorities and all the citizens will follow suit. This is because the power they yield can influence public opinion and in this case assist in understanding the politics of sexuality. This is the SADC that we need to demand!
- Saeanna Chingamuka is the Editor at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.