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Q&A: Inclusive Sex Education Needed in African Schools

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.

Akinyi M. Ocholla  Credit: Courtesy of Akinyi M. Ocholla

Akinyi M. Ocholla Credit: Courtesy of Akinyi M. Ocholla

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.


Excerpts of the Penal Code of the Laws of Kenya that the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) hopes would be repealed.

"Because of these laws, not only are we unable to give health information regarding HIV/AIDS, (otherwise we be accused of aiding and abetting a felony), our basic human rights are routinely abused. We would like that they instead be replaced by positive laws that will protect the LGBTI Kenyans from all forms of discrimination," the group says.

162. Any person who:

(a) has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; or

(b) has carnal knowledge of an animal; or

(c) permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature,

is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years:

Provided that, in the case of an offence under paragraph (a), the offender shall be liable to imprisonment for twenty-one years if -

(i) the offence was committed without the consent of the person who was carnally known; or

(ii) the offence was committed with that person's consent but the consent was obtained by force or by means of threats or intimidation of some kind, or by fear of bodily harm, or by means of false representations as to the nature of the act.

163. Any person who attempts to commit any of the offences specified in section 162 is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for seven years, with or without corporal punishment.

164. Indecent assault of boys under fourteen years of age. Repealed but contained in the sexual offenses act of 2006

165. Any male person who, whether in public or private commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male person, whether in public or private, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for five years, with or without corporal punishment.

While the law does not forbid lesbian relations explicitly, the penal code makes sexual relations ‘against the order of nature’, between two men, or two women or men and women, an offence liable to prison sentences.

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.

The U.N. has to allow even more women into positions of influence and transform its power structure, and it has to allow more openly out LGBT individuals into its hierarchies and these should come from all countries around the world, particularly from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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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