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Lesbian, transgender women across Africa forced into heterosexual marriages

Poverty, lack of government recognition contributes to problem

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(Photo by NASA)

Lesbian, queer and transgender women across Africa are still forced into heterosexual marriages, and many of them have to keep their sexual orientation and/or gender identity a secret because they are afraid of being victimized or even killed.

Guadalupe Dansokho, a lesbian woman from Senegal, was forced to marry a man. The couple divorced in 2019 after they were married for three years.

“I was forced to marry Magatte at the age of 23, someone who ignored me as much as I ignored him at first. It didn’t last and after two months we separated in March 2016. He quickly understood that I was not interested in men and he soon complained about it to my parents, so that they would cure me,” said Dansokho after the Washington Blade was able to make contact with her. “The rest was only moral violence and psychological pressure from my relatives, following the failure of this marriage in 2019, we formally divorced. The worst part of my story is that this project of marriage with Magatte was already in the cards since my early childhood, because often the arrangements between families take place several years in advance.”

“The issue of forced marriages is not uncommon,” said Dansokho. “In general, it happens when parents discover the homosexuality of their daughters as they are married in the hope of changing their sexual orientation and to guarantee a certain social respectability of the family.” 

“Boys also experience and live forced marriages, especially when they are gay. Nevertheless, social pressure seems to be stronger towards lesbian girls,” she added. “Young girls who are not ready to take on this life do not always feel well, but the social pressure is there. Recently, a lesbian acquaintance of mine took her own life to escape this life.”

Vanilla Hussein, the director of Entrepreneur Empowerment and Advocacy-Health, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group in Kenya, said traditional beliefs and a lack of government acknowledgement of LGBTQ and intersex issues are among the reasons why forced marriages of queer, lesbian and trans women are still rampant across Africa.

“Marriage is a legal institution both at local and national level and therefore, requires parties involved to have consensus when fulfilling this contractual obligation or agreement for both the male and female, male and male-male as well as female-female, respectively,” said Hussein. “Forced marriages still exist in urban and rural areas and communities because of social and economic factors. The economic factors such as unemployment, poverty rates and poor welfare has forced queer, trans women and lesbians to get married to those with better jobs, lifestyle and money.” 

“However, forced marriages within the queer, trans women and lesbian communities can be stopped by creating education and sensitization within various African communities, sharing of educational resource materials and the creation of a fund to support poor queer, trans women and lesbian communities as well as supporting organizations through their advocacy work campaigns,” added Hussein. “Moreso, governments and organizations should carry out campaigns against forced marriages, creating empowerment programs to improve the welfare and economic conditions of young men and women, offering free educational programs to improve on the capacities, knowledge as well as creating research and data collection on queer, trans women and lesbian forced marriages across Africa as this data will be used to create awareness that will help in raising voices and helping victims of forced marriages.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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Africa

U.S. ambassador to Kenya: Every country must make ‘own decisions’ about LGBTQ rights

Meg Whitman’s March 3 comments raised eyebrows

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U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman (Screen capture via Citizen Kenya TV/YouTube)

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman earlier this month said every country “has to make their own decisions about” LGBTQ and intersex rights.

“Every country has to make their own decisions about LGBTQ rights,” she said on March 3 while speaking to reporters in Kenya’s Kajiado County. “In the United States we probably have a different position, which is we view LBTQ rights as human rights, but we respect every country’s point of view on what position they want to take on this and we will respect that, but of course our democratic values and the way we feel is different and that’s okay.”

“Countries have differences,” added Whitman. “We have a very strong working relationship over many years and I think the Kenyan government probably knows the U.S. perspective, in fact I know they do, but we also respect Kenya’s right over this particular issue.”

Kenya is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The Kenyan Supreme Court on Feb. 24 ruled the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group, must be allowed to register as a non-governmental organization. The country’s groundbreaking intersex rights law took effect last July.

President William Ruto last September told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour before he took office that LGBTQ and intersex rights are “not a big issue” in his country. His government last month began to crack down on foreign books with gay content that it feels targets teenagers.

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s overall foreign policy. 

First lady Jill Biden on Feb. 25 spoke with young people about condoms, contraception and safer sex practices during her visit to the Shujaaz Konnect Festival in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Whitman on March 3 told reporters the $123,124,278.40 (16 billion Kenyan shillings) in aid the U.S. has given to Kenya for food and drought relief is not connected to the country’s LGBTQ and intersex rights policies.

“I want to underscore there is absolutely no linkage at all between that food and drought relief and Kenya’s stance on LGBTQ,” said Whitman.

A State Department spokesperson on Monday in a statement to the Washington Blade said “our position on the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is clear. Human rights are universal.”

“A person’s ability to exercise their rights should never be limited based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics,” said the spokesperson. “Governments should protect and promote respect for human rights for each and every human being, without discrimination, and they should abide by their human rights obligations and commitments.”

Whitman on Monday in a tweet reiterated this point. She also said she met with LGBTQ and intersex activists.

“Over the past week my team and I met with the LGBTQI+ community and stakeholders to support human rights of LGBTQI+ persons,” tweeted Whitman. “The U.S. proudly advances efforts to protect LGBTQI+ persons from discrimination and violence and will continue to stand up for human rights and equality.”

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Africa

Namibian Supreme Court hears three LGBTQ rights cases

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized

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Activists gather outside the Supreme Court of Namibia on March 3, 2023, after the hearing of a case to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed outside the country and afford foreign spouses in these marriages spousal rights. (Photo by Arlana Shikongo)

The Supreme Court of Namibia will soon issue rulings in three pivotal cases involving LGBTQ and intersex people that will set a precedent for the recognition of same-sex marriages and spousal immigration rights for non-Namibian partners. 

Furthermore, a case is soon to be heard in the country’s high court that will challenge the southern African nation’s antiquated sodomy law. 

These cases have incited public debate around LGBTQ and intersex rights in a country where homosexuality is a controversial and polarizing subject.

This is the first time since 2001 that Namibia’s highest court will hear cases regarding same-sex relationships. It is also the first time the high court will hear arguments regarding the sodomy law.

The first hearing, which took place on March 3, was the joint cases of Digashu and Seiler-Lilles versus the government.

The applicants — both foreign nationals married to Namibian citizens — in both cases are seeking recognition of their marriages concluded outside Namibia in order to access spousal immigration rights such as permanent residence and employment authorization. 

The second hearing, which took place on March 6, was in the case of a Namibian man married to a Mexican man seeking citizenship by descent for their children born via surrogate. The government has demanded DNA testing to prove that the Namibian national is the biological father to the children. 

In the last case, a gay Namibian man is not only challenging the constitutionality of the country’s sodomy law but also the prohibition of “unnatural sexual offenses.” 

While the cases represent a crucial moment for the country’s LGBTQ and intersex community and their rights, individual people and families fighting a fight bigger than they had foreseen are at the center of these cases. 

Marriage, immigration and the law

South African citizen Daniel Digashu married Namibian national Johann Potgieter in South Africa in 2015. The couple and their son moved to Namibia in 2017.

While the move was favorable for the family, the law around same-sex marriage was not.

Digashu’s first encounter with the Home Affairs and Immigration Ministry was not to have them officially recognize his marriage. He was applying for a permit allowing him to work in the country in the company that he jointly started with his husband. 

“We’ve always had a dream to live on a farm and run this tourism company. We registered the company first, about six months before we officially moved,” Digashu said. 

He said the ministry advised him against applying for permanent residency because the country does not recognize his marriage. Officials instead told him to seek a work permit.

Despite assurances from the ministry’s personnel, the application was denied. Digashu filed an appeal, and that was denied too. 

From this moment to today, Digashu has lived a life in limbo. 

Due to the ongoing court cases, he is able to renew his visitor’s visa every few months. This, he said, comes with exhausting administrative costs that legal fees exacerbate.

Digashu said the process has put psychological, emotional and financial strain on his family. 

“Prior to finding funding it had been quite difficult financially. It is not something that a lot of people would afford. I don’t think we even could afford it. That’s why we sought out and looked for funding and luckily we found that,” he said.

As they await the judgment of their hearing, everything remains the same for Digashu and his family: His husband remains the sole breadwinner as Digashu himself still cannot work.

Namibian citizen Anette Seiler and her German wife Anita Seiler-Lilles face the same dilemma.

Neither expected to become cornerstones of the advocacy around marriage equality and LGBTQ and intersex rights in Namibia. 

“We didn’t plan to come to Namibia in the early 2000s,” said Seiler. “We thought we might want to come back when Anita didn’t have to work anymore, and that would be many years later. So, we didn’t think so much in terms of gay rights in Namibia at that time.”

“It was a very personal thing for us to get married. We were not active in Namibia or Germany in the gay community,” she added. 

Both couples have received copious amounts of support from the local LGBTQ and intersex community and civil society as they fight to be afforded the same spousal rights that would be granted to opposite-sex couples. 

Citizenship by descent and the right to family

As Namibia grapples with the recognition of same-sex marriages, the right to family and protections of them is another matter that has come under scrutiny.

Namibian citizen Phillip Lühl and his husband, Mexican national Guillermo Delgado, are fighting for their children born via surrogacy to be granted Namibian citizenship by descent. 

Delgado and Lühl say they are fighting for their children’s birthright.

While both fathers are listed on the children’s South African birth certificates, the Namibian government has demanded DNA proof that Lühl is the biological parent of the children. 

“The fact is that any other South African birth certificate is accepted but in our case it’s not because we’re of the same sex. In the case of a heterosexual couple, nobody will ever ask for any proof or dispute the validity of the document, but in our case it is,” Lühl said. 

The children have been granted Mexican citizenship by descent after a rigorous process that ended with the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry granting it.

“They initially were not favorable but concluded that Mexico would recognize a process that was duly and procedurally done in a constituency that they recognize, namely South Africa,” Delgado explained. 

The family nevertheless plans to stay in Namibia and continue to fight the government for their children’s birthright and the recognition of their family.

Their case scrutinizes the ambit of the Namibian Constitution, which affords all its citizens protection against discrimination and the right to family. 

‘Apartheid-era’ sodomy law

In the final case, Namibian gay activist Friedel Dausab has filed a constitutional challenge against the common law crime of sodomy and the prohibition of “unnatural” sexual acts. 

Dausab brought a case against the government in June 2020 stating that the law promotes stigma and exclusion, and instigates the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual acts between men.

Dausab argues that the offenses under the law are incompatible with the constitutional rights to equality, dignity, privacy, freedom of association and freedom of expression. He also argues that the crime of “unnatural sexual offenses” is too vague to be compatible with the constitution.

“I am challenging these laws as a lifelong and dedicated activist because I am acutely aware that criminalization is a clear obstacle to living a full, open, honest and healthy life,” he said.

Namibian Attorney General Festus Mbandeka in a recent affidavit he submitted to the high court said same-sex sexual conduct is immoral and unacceptable to many Namibians. Mbandeka further denied the existence of the sodomy law stigmatizes gay men. 

“If these men suffer any stigma it is in consequence of their choice to engage in sexual conduct considered to be morally taboo in our society,” Mbandeka said.

While it is reported that 64 sodomy-related arrests were made between 2003-2019, the offenses are rarely enforced. The country’s Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 nevertheless lists “sodomy” as a Schedule 1 offense.

The U.K.-based organization Human Dignity Trust says this listing means that either a police officer or an ordinary citizen can arrest anyone who is reasonably suspected of having committed the offense without needing a warrant. It is legal to use lethal force to kill them if the suspect attempts to evade arrest.

Namibia remains one of the few countries in southern Africa that is yet to abolish its sodomy law. Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and South Africa have already done so. 

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South Sudanese government curtails security agency’s ability to arbitrarily arrest people

National Security Services accused of targeting LGBTQ, intersex people

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(Image by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

Human rights groups have welcomed the scrapping of South Sudan’s National Security Services’ unfettered powers to arrest people.

President Salva Kiir Mayardit and First Vice President Riek Machar last month scrapped Section 54 and 55 that allowed an arrest without a warrant and arrest with a warrant respectively under the National Security Service Act of 2014. Many human rights organizations had called for the government to restrict the powers of the NSS, which has caused many LGBTQ and intersex people to flee to the Kakuma refugee camp in neighboring Kenya.

“The SSHRDN (the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network) welcomes the recent proclamation by the Cabinet Affairs Minister, Dr. Martin Elia Lumoro, on behalf of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity declaring that the NSS no longer has the power to arrest with or without a warrant,” said the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network National Coordinator James Bidal.

Bidal in his statement notes human rights activists “have faulted” the National Security Service Act of 2014 “for giving” the NSS “police-like powers to arrest, detain conduct searchers and seize property without adequate safeguards and exceeding the NSS’ constitutional mandate, which limits its powers to information gathering, analysis and advice to the relevant authorities.” 

“Human rights organizations have documented human rights violations by the NSS including arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention, including of political opponents and government critics,” said Bidal. “As the Human rights defenders’ network, we commit to continue defending and advocating for human rights of every person in the country and continue to exploring meaningful ways to collaborate and work with government, legislature, the judiciary, civil society, the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, media, academia, individual human rights defenders, international non-profit organizations, United Nations agencies and the diplomatic corporations.”

Carine Kaneza Nantulya, the deputy director of the Human Rights Watch in Africa, notes the NSS was established at independence in 2011 to collect information, conduct analysis, and advise relevant authorities however. It, however, repeatedly overstepped this constitutional mandate.

“Worryingly, NSS abuses also stretch beyond South Sudan’s borders,” said Nantulya. “In some cases, it has harassed and repressed South Sudanese activists in Kenya and Uganda with the aid of local authorities. South Sudanese authorities should immediately open an investigation into the security service abuses and hold officers to account while ensuring redress for victims. The investigation should include the role of senior leadership of the NSS in perpetuating abuses. The African Union and South Sudan’s neighbors should apply consistent diplomatic pressure to ensure these reforms. This could help transform the NSS into an agency that respects fundamental rights and freedoms not only in South Sudan, but the region.”

Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East and Southern Africa, also said the NSS operates a spy network that extends throughout East Africa where many South Sudanese have found refuge. 

Mwangovya said at least four South Sudanese men — three of whom were refugees who had received protection in Kenya — since January 2017 have been illegally picked up and transferred back to South Sudan. They were held in prolonged detention at Blue House, the NSS’ detention facility, and two of them were reportedly killed extrajudicially.

“Since the NSS Act in 2014, the NSS has accumulated unchecked powers, becoming one of the main perpetrators of human rights violations and the most powerful security actor in South Sudan,” said Mwangovya.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in South Sudan under the country’s 2008 penal code that criminalizes “acts of carnal knowledge against the order of nature” and “gross indecency.” These provisions carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison and a fine.

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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