16 October 2014
Georgina Caswell is our Regional Programme Advisor for the Link Up Project. Here she reflects on LGBTI equality in South Africa.
Each day I walk to work I pass this stunning wall. It says ‘all shall be equal before the law’. I love graffiti and this is one of my favourites by the artist faith47. It’s so thought-provoking; and the image draws you in, especially because it’s usually fenced off by barbed wire.
I live in South Africa where the laws of the land really do speak to equality. The South African Constitution protects people from discrimination on the basis of "race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth."
Having said that, in the media we regularly hear stories of gay men and lesbians who experience physical violence including rape, other forms of attacks and murder because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is always shocking. And sadly, these are not isolated events. Often the police are not responsive. They rarely record individual cases where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people show up to the police station; and individuals are fearful to report because of their sexuality and the fear associated with being further discriminated against.
So clearly, laws alone cannot change some individual or societies’ attitudes.
I work on a programme that engages with young people living with HIV, young people who sell sex, young men who have sex with men, young people who use drugs and other young people affected by HIV. The programme is called Link Up and it operates in Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda. In all of these countries, legislation introduced during colonialism either criminalises homosexuality or outlaws same sex behaviours (sex between men and sex between women). Not only do these societies frown on people who identify as LGBTI, the law also does not support LGBTI people. In addition to criminalising same sex sexual activities, there is a dearth of human rights protections for LGBTI persons embedded in the laws of these countries. For example, there is not any legislation that bans hate crimes against LGBTI people. Community leaders and politicians in these countries say they are protecting the family unit from ‘behaviour that is imported from Europe and America’.
I have learnt from young gay men in Burundi that the penalty for two men or two women found having sex together is imprisonment for three months to two years and a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 francs (approx 30 – 60 USD). Since this law was passed 5 years ago, no-one has been convicted to date. Nonetheless, during youth dialogues, young gay people have shared how the existence of the law creates and contributes to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. They described how this restrictive environment can discourage young LGBTI people from being open and free to be who they are.
From a health perspective, it also discourages young LGBTI people from getting any specific information, counselling, testing and treatment that they need to stay on top of their health. This is both bad for their own health and it impacts on their sexual partners, their families and communities, exposing others to additional health risks. The young people in the youth dialogues recommend that sexuality and gender – and the importance of tolerance and understanding – should have a greater emphasis at school, in faith-based settings, at work and in the media.
Not everyone’s experience is the same and there are indeed many champions for the rights of LGBTI communities (I consider myself to be one of these advocates!). I was moved when a young gay man from Burundi described his mother as his hero, sharing the comfort he felt in talking to her about his sexuality and how she has always loved him and supported him and his work in HIV. So it’s important to say that not all individuals experience violence from all sides when they are open about their sexuality.
As I walk to work and pass the beautiful graffiti, I often think about all these issues. I think about South Africa’s amazing constitution. Then I think about the lived reality and the growing body of evidence of violence targeted at LGBTI people in South Africa and regionally. Then I think about everyone’s responsibility in changing attitudes and in ensuring laws are in place and enforced to protect people from discrimination and violence so every individual can live a full life and have the freedom to love without fear.
What a complex picture for a morning walk. But inspired art and a constant reminder to me of our commitment to equality before the law.