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Saturday, May 25, 2019
Suzanne Hoeksema interviews AKINYI M. OCHOLLA, Chair of Minority Women in Action
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - With the exception of South Africa, most African countries criminalise same-sex relationships with imprisonment, while incidents of violence against gay women and men are poorly investigated and rarely taken to court.
In an interview with IPS, Akinyi M. Ocholla from the Nairobi-based Minority Women in Action, a community-based organisation that stands up for the rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women and girls, said that the taboo on homosexuality in African countries will only be broken when schools start to include sexuality and sexual orientation in their curriculum.
“We really have to start from scratch,” she said. “Kenya is such a deep-rooted Christian and Muslim society, and most people feel extremely uncomfortable to discuss sex, even between boys and girls, so one can imagine how difficult it is to raise the issue of homosexuality.”
Minority Women in Action was founded in 2006 by a group of lesbian women who felt that their specific needs were not met by the existing male-dominated gay organisations in Nairobi. The group fights for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Kenya and wants to create an open and safe space for LBTI women to come together and exchange experiences.
Sections in Kenyan law state that so-called “sex against the order of nature” is punishable with 14 years in prison, and men can be charged with “sodomy” risking five years of imprisonment.
And lesbians do face harassment and violence, including cases of “curative rape” so as to ‘heal’ her ‘homosexual tendencies’. They are also often dismissed from their workplaces, simply on the basis of their sexual orientation – even though that has no relation to the efficiency of their jobs, Ocholla explained.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
IPS: How is the situation relating to gays and lesbians in Kenya, and on the African continent? AKINYI OCHOLLA: In East Africa, the emergence of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) movement in the public sphere is fairly recent, and very much misunderstood and disliked by the religious and conservative people.
Uganda has recently become very harsh on gays, and now they are discussing a ridiculous bill in parliament that wants to prohibit any form affiliation with homosexuals, while encouraging citizens to report gays to the police, even when they are your family.
In Kenya, there are many unreported human rights violations of LGBTI people. Those that are reported to the police do not necessarily receive any hearing nor will offenders be prosecuted. Often the police themselves beat, sexually harass, or even blackmail LGBTI individuals.
Schools barely touch upon topics like sexuality, and alternative sexual orientation is relegated to one of the many subjects of ‘deviances’ taught in colleges. Topics like transgender and intersex issues are not even taught because those are even less understood.
It is interesting that homosexuality is a topic of debate in the media – in newspapers, gutter presses, on radio, TV, and soon even in Kenyan soap operas. To me this is a good beginning. Even though most comments are predominantly negative, it is at least a sign that people start to discuss it.
IPS: Can you talk about the historical context? AO: There are people who say that homosexuality is brought to Africa by the “white men”, but that does not make any sense, because there are people who grow up in rural areas and without ever having affiliated with white people, and they turn out to be gay.
There are even certain pre-colonial practices that hint at homosexual practices, such as women marrying other women. This was often done in cases where the older woman had no children to carry her family name, or her husband’s name.
She would marry another woman who would then be expected to bear her children, and they stayed in the same house. Often they would have very close bonds with each other and even love each other. There are also documented cases of men engaging in homosexual practices, such as the oral exchange of semen as rites of passage.
IPS: What is the role of religion in the discrimination of gays in Africa? AO: Christians might be a little more tolerant, but only marginally so. Generally religious conservative people just cannot accept LGBTI people amongst them.
A religious system that teaches hetero-normative values to its congregations is very unlikely to want to accept homosexuality as ‘normal’, because it turns upside-down their perceptions regarding genders, gender roles and power dynamics.
Religion as it is taught today is very good at keeping patriarchy alive, giving men power to rule the country and in the domestic spheres and thereby oppressing women.
IPS: What can civil society, and your group in particular, do to support lesbian women and girls in Kenya? AO: There are lots of instances where they are either beaten up, or disowned by their family, and there are cases of ‘curative rape’, even within the family. This is not reported very much, because it is so taboo.
In such cases, when the girl decides to take the case to court, we would provide all the support we can, but we can obviously not force her to do so.
IPS: What can be done within the United Nation system to promote the rights of LGBTI people in Africa? AO: If the U.N. system is to support LGBTI rights, it must undergo a lot of change and its staff has to release their hold on religious doctrine.
I feel that many of the U.N. documents, conventions, covenants, and declarations do not tackle LGBTI issues head on. They talk about sex, or sexuality, but rarely about sexual orientation or gender identity.
It’s almost like they are pussyfooting around the issues, for fear of putting off homophobic partners from within and outside the U.N.
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