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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Long Fight for Justice for Homosexuals

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jan 23 2007 (IPS) - Even with tens of thousands of activists at the World Social Forum (WSF) denouncing injustices of all kinds, the issue of discrimination against homosexuals is making its voice heard amidst the din.

At the five-day forum, which opened Jan. 20 here in Kenya’s capital, lesbians and gays from across Africa have come out to express how they have been ill-treated by society.

In most African countries, homosexuality is taboo. It is regarded by some as satanic and un-African.

However, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), an umbrella body of gay and lesbian groups, and which has brought together colleagues from across the continent to share experiences, is hopeful that after the WSF, this perception will have changed.

“After the WSF, we expect that Kenyan’s and Africa’s views on homosexuals will be transformed forever, and that they will view us with a new eye,” Pauline Kimani of GALCK told IPS.

“We are saying we exist and that we are part of the society. We want to be treated as people because we are people, we are human beings living in the same world,” she added.

“Leading a homosexual life in Kenya is not difficult when you are in the closet. The problem is when you open up. When girls learnt that I was a lesbian, they feared sitting next to me; they thought I would hit on them,” Kimani, a university student in Nairobi recalled.

In other countries, discrimination has manifested itself through violence, including lesbians and gay persons reportedly murdered for their sexuality. Speaking to IPS, Fikile Vilakazi, director of the Coalition of African Lesbians cited the example of Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian who was killed by a mob in Cape Town, South Africa, early last year.

Besides killings, lesbians are among the women who are raped in South Africa, a country with one of the highest rape rates on the continent.

Vilakazi also noted a case in Zimbabwe in which seven lesbians were severely beaten by a rogue mob late last year.

In Uganda, lesbians, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBT) persons have not been spared either. Those fighting for the rights of the LGBT have continually been harassed by police, as happened to Juliet Victor Mukasa, chair of Sexual Minorities Uganda.

“They raided my house and arrested my friend. They manhandled her and undressed her to confirm her gender, and detained her for hours. This was humiliating. In addition, they took the organisation’s documents which have all the information about our activities,” Mukasa told IPS.

Mukasa, who had to go into hiding fearing for his life is now suing the government, following the incident that took place in 2005. “I am seeking justice. I must fight for the liberation of my colleagues who live in fear, who are losing homes, jobs and who fear being rejected because of their sexual orientation.”

Tales of fear amongst LGBT persons being victimised also abound in Rwanda. “Because of hostility and negative remarks about homosexuals, we operate in the closet. Even our organisation operates like a community based group because we fear being discovered and arrested,” Brenda (who preferred to be known by one name for security reasons) said.

Analysts say laws in most African countries are largely to blame for criminalising and discriminating against homosexuals. In nations across the continent, homosexuality is outlawed, with strict penalties for those found guilty.

In Kenya, for example, homosexuality is illegal and is punishable up to 14 years in prison. In neighbouring Uganda the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, while in Rwanda, those found guilty are sentenced to six years to life imprisonment.

However, calls are now emerging for these “archaic” laws to be reviewed.

“Most of these laws are old laws that we inherited from previous colonial regimes. We are still using them in our countries, while architects of the same laws have changed laws in their own countries. We need to come up with a law that recognises homosexuality, as well as outlaws discrimination regardless of the sexual orientation,” noted Judy Kaari, of GALCK.

A few countries such as South Africa have homosexual-friendly laws, including legislation recognising same-sex marriages, passed last year.

Nevertheless, others argue that friendly laws alone cannot end discrimination and demonisation of homosexuals. Equally important are support groups and awareness campaigns seeking to help the society accept the homosexual community.

These campaigns need to target among others, the religious community, according to Annika Rodriguez of Skeiv Solidaritet (Queer Solidarity), a lesbian organisation in Norway. The country has liberal laws on homosexuality.

She says religious communities do not know how to handle young people in need of consolation. “When the young people go to the priests, they are prayed for to be cured; homosexuality is not a disease. The priests make them feel that their life is not worth living. Many of them try to commit suicide because they cannot just cope,” Rodriguez added.

She pointed to a 1997 study conducted in Norway finding that 25 percent of gay and lesbian teenagers had tried to commit suicide.

Educating the public on the different kinds of sexual orientation, Vilakazi underlined, remains a great challenge, “but it is the way to go.”

Several LGBT persons attending the WSF are hoping for solutions for their struggle to emerge from the discussions.

The WSF is an annual gathering of social activists seeking to chart out ways of countering the dominance of the rich western nations. Usually, this meet of tens of thousands of activists takes place in January, as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of powerful business and political elites held in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos.

Since 2001, the events have been held in Brazil and India. Last year it was a polycentric forum that was held in three places, Bamako, Mali; Caracas, Venezuela; and Karachi, Pakistan. At least 50,000 from across the world people are present at the Nairobi event.

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