Today in the world, 14 countries criminalize transgender people and up to 67 countries criminalize homosexual relations, with punishments that in 11 countries go as far as the death penalty. However, there seemed to be a progression and in recent years homosexuality had been decriminalized in almost 20 countries. Suddenly, a law in Uganda turned the tables and the world went back decades in human rights.
The country, which already criminalized same-sex relationships, has passed a law that condemns “promotion of homosexuality” with up to 20 years in prison and “aggravated homosexuality” with the death penalty. The former refers to persons who publicly advocate homosexuality, while the latter targets “repeat offenders”, those who transmit HIV to others or who have intimate relations with minors or persons with functional diversity.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, described the law as probably “the worst of its kind in the world”. A law contrary to the Constitution and international treaties that will allow “systematic violations of the rights of LGTBI people”.
We spoke with Eudora Ogechukwu, a young intersex advocate from Nigeria with experience working with sexual minorities and advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, with expertise working in various national and international organizations.
First, would work like what you do be punishable by imprisonment in Uganda?
My major existence is criminalized in Uganda. So, you can imagine. If my existence is criminalized what would happen to me due to the work I do. When your basic existence is criminalized, people see you as a criminal. So, the work I do puts me at major risk of being imprisoned at any time.
In recent times, in addition to Uganda, countries such as Tanzania and Kenya have tightened laws on homosexuality. Is there a resurgence of homophobia in Africa and have advances in the rights of LGTBIQ+ people been slowed down?
These basic laws that criminalize homosexuality in Africa have slowed down a lot the progress. We are basically talking about LGBTQ rights, and we feel like we are achieving something, trying to make people understand that our basic rights need to be respected. When these laws come up, you understand there are loopholes, and it looks like we are doing nothing. It takes us back to the drawing board. And you wonder… what we did? Why do we have to have this law here? What happened? What went wrong?
In Uganda, moreover, the “crime of aggravated homosexuality” has been introduced, which includes people who transmit HIV to others. UNAIDS, the UN HIV agency, notes that HIV prevalence is five times higher among gay men. And, when this persecution is recent, it increases 12-fold. Are years of progress in the HIV pandemic also at risk?
Honestly, at this point I was thinking that we were close to eliminating HIV in Africa, but this whole thing is putting the whole work down. Because if you look at who people are the major stakeholders of prevention and key HIV services are the LGTBIQ persons. And to end aids in 2030, we will need to take everybody along and taking everybody along means that you also have to include LGBTQ people. Because if you leave them behind there is a loophole of where there will be issues coming up. How do you criminalize people living with HIV? It doesn’t even make sense. Does it stop the spread of HIV, or does it make it spread more?
We have been battling heartily for years and we are doing our best to see how we can reduce HIV, but laws and policies promoting discrimination against people living with HIV put the whole progress at risk. People will now have more reason not to even adhere to precautions or medications or whatever they must do to stay safe. When you criminalize people, basically you are trying to wipe them off and take them off from existing.
For those of us who live far from that reality and cannot imagine it… how does discrimination and criminalization of LGTBQ+ people affect their access to health systems? Could you give examples that you have experienced or are close to?
When you come to this stigma and discrimination, one of the major places where it stands upright is access to healthcare and services.
Imagine somebody who is criminalized for living with HIV. How do they even come out to access care and services? They will hide. If you are going to access healthcare and you are meeting a hostile environment, tomorrow, you might not want to go. People are not accessing health care services because doctors, nurses and everybody who was supposed to offer you support in health services are against you. It makes you wonder… why do I need to do this? Why do I need to adhere to this instruction? Why do I need to take my medication? Why do I need to stay safe when these people do not want me to be?
For example: as an intersex person, I cannot even access healthcare because they will want me to assign to a particular gender, they say they must attend you as a he or she. You cannot be who you are and that is why going to hospitals always gives me anxiety. I will be exposed to so much stigma and discrimination, I will be exposed to so much questioning from people who are supposed to take care of me. So, it’s heartbreaking that even at this stage in life, even at this age and time, we still have people who are criminalized because of their mere existence, having limits to access their fundamental basic rights.
We all should have the right to health, these laws and policies that are being introduced all the time limit LGBTIQ people’s access to health. It is something that we really need to work on, because if we do not have adequate access to healthcare services, how would we live a good life as a human being?
According to the Global Fund, the fight against AIDS and other pandemics cannot succeed without human rights. How does the Global Fund and civil society organizations work to end discrimination?
Global Fund and other NGOs are doing their best to make sure that the issues of these sexual and gender minorities, who are mostly the people that are left behind, are being brought to light. Global Fund has done a whole lot in identifying our issues to someone like me, who never thought for a day that I would have a voice on my own due to the background of the stigma and discrimination. But Global Fund found me, give me a voice and a platform to hold on to and grow. They gave me the exposure that I needed to be able to do the work I do, to be able to shine and be myself.
They brought light on our issues and on how we start identifying what needs to be done to end stigma and discrimination and how we can join hands to end aids it in 2030. It’s a thing of joy to see.
In your personal experience… how have you experienced and suffered marginalization and exclusion in Nigeria?
Stigma and discrimination happen every day. Exclusion and marginalization happen every day to the sexual minorities in Nigeria. It is something we experience, It’s our daily living. For example, today, I just left the police station where at least 26 girls were arrested because they were hosting a party. Police said that it was is a gay gathering, so they came in and arrested all of them. It has been 2 days and they still are at the police station. And it’s not like it happens today and it won’t happen tomorrow: we see these things daily,
People call you names along the way because you look different, and you get to see families who will disown their relatives. People don’t even get to talk about their sexuality because families, friends, everybody, will tend to see them as a taboo. But we are raising a community that will build a thick skin to fight back homophobic people, because we are not giving in anymore to the bullies, to their stigma, to their discrimination. We are trying to raise our voices to speak about our existence and to fight back to create spaces for ourselves.
Finally… to those people who belong to discriminated minorities and who are now reading you, what would you say to them?
To those of you who are marginalized and discriminated against today, I want you to know that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep struggling. Don’t give up hope because our differences make us unique. And yes, we exist, and we are here to stay. Nobody can do or say anything that will wipe us off from the face of this earth.
Our abilities aren’t hindered because of our differences; our talents aren’t any less because we are unique. Our worth isn’t defined by our diversities. It is not our differences that divide us, it is our inability to recognize, accept, embrace and celebrate those differences. Life will be boring if we are all the same.