The Advanced Human Rights Courses (AHRC), in collaboration with the SOGIESC Unit of the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria (UP), recently hosted the annual short course on Sexual Minority Rights in Africa, from 24 to the 28 February 2020. The course was attended by 58 participants from all over the world, with 20 African countries represented. This year’s participants included students on both the LLM/MPhil (Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa) and the LLM/MPhil (Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Africa) programmes. Also in attendance were doctoral researchers, judicial officers, representatives from the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI), members of civil society, academics and members from the South African Police Services (SAPS).
This year, the course provided a platform for participants to engage in conversations around gender and sex identities, orientation, characteristics and sexuality. There was a focus on the notion of African sexualities and how we might think about African-ness as the history of homosexuality in Africa was investigated. To identify as African, it is important to reflect on questions such as: Who are African? Are Africans a racial, cultural, political, religious or linguistic community, or are they a combination of all these?
“The factors that make up our identities, include historical development and socialisation. This is why our identities continue to be in the making and there is always room for transformation.” – Professor Charles Ngwena, Centre for Human Rights, UP
The role of patriarchy and heteronormativity in policing sexuality and gender was much discussed as well as the contentious topic of the role of religion in regulating sexual minority rights in secular states. There was much debate within the group surrounding Christian and Islamic verses which have been used to justify the rejection of sexual minorities, with a specific focus on homosexual people, in many African states by African leaders.
“I want us to look at Africa as a diverse heritage. We have a triple heritage- from African tradition we had religion and cultural practices, Africans interacted with westerners and brought their faith, Arabs who brought culture, tradition and religion- Islam and soon we may have a fourth with the interactions of the Chinese who are now on the continent. We cannot insist on one religion or secularism.” – Dr Osogo Ambani, School of Law, Strathmore University
The group engaged in an examination of equality laws in South Africa and the pending Hate Crimes Bill which is currently being tabled in parliament. Despite the progressive laws in South Africa, the challenge of violence against the LGBTIQ+ community is still rife and there is a need to do more work to promote an inclusive society where human dignity is not negotiated according to ideals of morality.
“For many people who are outed, keeping their job is the least of their worries as they wonder if they’ll see the light of day the following morning.” – Dr Anastacia Tomson, Medical doctor, author and transgender activist
Dr Geraldine Reymenants, General Representative of the Government of Flanders in Southern Africa, who are the main donor of the course, highlighted the support of the Government of Flanders for human rights and equal opportunities in Africa and for CSOs working in these areas. The course also provided a historical and theoretical introduction into the European Convention on Human Rights and how it shaped LGBTIQ+ struggles in European countries, as a means of broadening the perspectives of participants on the challenges and successes of advocates in other jurisdictions.
“One of the challenges faced by the LGBTIQ+ organisations in Europe is helping the LGBTIQ+ community accept themselves fully for who they are. Self-acceptance for the LGBTIQ+ is of paramount importance.” – Yves Aerts, General Coordinator, Cavaria
Challenges that the intersex community faces include language barriers, infanticide, genital mutilation through ‘normalising’ surgeries and lack of access to medical records and information on medical procedures conducted on them. One of the controversial issues discussed during the course is the fear of inclusivity within the LGBTQ+ community due to homophobic and transphobic mindsets from the heteronormative community which can impact intersex persons by association. The group engaged in a fervent debate on whether intersex rights can be protected through the interpretation of Resolution 275. Intersex rights have not been seen to be included although a responding argument by African activists is that the intersex community is meant to be protected alongside gender and sexual minorities on the continent through this Resolution. The role of national human rights institutions in advancing the rights of sexual minorities in countries where homosexuality is criminalised was explored throughout the week as an alternative short-term solution to ensure there is protection for vulnerable minorities.
“NHRIs are the watchdog and independently monitor and promote human rights in their respective countries. The independence of NHRIs is very important to ensure the protection of the rights of all peoples including the LGBTI community” – Marie Ramtu, NANHRI
There was much discussion around the circumstances contributing to the recent decriminalisation of same-sex sexual practices, and effectively of same-sex relationships, in Botswana. The group responded with a keen interest in LGBTIQ+ activism and advocacy work which supports strategic litigation efforts. A break-out session was facilitated to reflect on and discuss what a decriminalisation campaign in the African context would look like and how such a campaign can be realised. There was a call from the group to recognise that a hate crime is a compound crime and requires a more nuanced response from the judiciary when these cases pass through the legal system.
“Respect for rule of law is important but there’s a need to have a judiciary that understands the language of human rights in order to effectively address SOGIESC issues in Africa” -Sibongile Ndashe
The Centre gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the General Representation of the Government of Flanders in Southern Africa and the institutional support from the partner organisations. The next short course by AHRC will be presented from 9 to 13 March 2020 and will be on Disability Rights in an African Context.
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