Rights for everyone? The challenges and opportunities for ensuring human rights for LGBTI people in Southern Africa

As advocates for social change and development, we may feel at times that we are creeping closer towards our goal of an egalitarian and peaceful world, even if change comes slowly.  However, on some fronts, this is not the case, and some human rights gains are facing a well-coordinated backlash, and others are actually being reversed.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the fight for equal rights and freedom from discrimination and violence for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgendered and intersex (LGBTI) people in Africa.

The frightening violations of LGBTI people’s human rights include prison sentences for loving people of the same sex, murder, rape, assault, exclusion from health services,  and the often state-sanctioned dissolution and intimidation of LGBTI rights organisations and activists.

To begin formulating a response to the marginalization of LGBTI people and this wave of hate crimes from many corners of African societies, Sonke, together with a number of MenEngage Africa partners, mapped the national policies of selected Southern African countries to assess how far they protected or discriminated against LGBTI people.  Not all MenEngage partners were able to participate in this process as a result of local social, cultural and political norms and practices.  While the respect for sexual diversity is a MenEngage principle, the network fully respects the rights of individual members to decide whether to join specific regional activities or not.

The findings of the mapping will ultimately shape advocacy priorities to push for laws and policies that secure equal rights for all, and special protection for society’s most marginalised. The research process included desk research on laws, policies and media pieces.

The results paint a bleak picture for LGBTI people on the continent. Discrimination comes from both institutions (including, and especially, government) and from socio-cultural norms on the ground: homosexuality is illegal in nine out of the thirteen countries reviewed, and LGBTI people face major difficulties accessing health care, especially sexual and reproductive health services. 

How can we change this?  What needs to be done?

How can organisations in the MenEngage Africa network support LGBTI rights if homosexuality is illegal in their respective countries, or if LGBTI organisations are not allowed to operate? 

One of the first but crucial challenges is to dispel the common notion that homosexuality and non-heterosexual practices and orientations are un-African.  

There is plenty of evidence that shows homosexual practice existed in African societies before colonisation, and was not deemed criminal. 

European countries which colonised many African countries frequently applied their own cultural norms onto the legislation they imposed upon the colonies, including anti-sodomy laws. (Read more about this issue here.)

France and Belgium all had anti-sodomy laws which were overturned the late 1700s. Italy followed overturning those laws in 1882, and Germany and Great Britain trailed far behind, only decriminalising same-sex sex acts in the 1960s and 1970s respectively.

Perhaps one reason that homophobia has persisted in Africa long after these colonists formally relinquished power, is that it is arguably a useful tool in maintaining a patriarchal system that perpetuates male dominance. Patriarchy can be thought of as an unspoken men’s club which men can only belong to if they follow certain behaviours and display certain attitudes.  It could not control access to power so rigorously if it were open-minded and accepting, progressive or human rights based.

Many donors such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) prioritize funding programmes which enhance rights of LGBTI people (See for example their Strategy for regional work on HIV and AIDS, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and Strategy on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) persons in sub-Saharan Africa). 

But it is illegal in my country!

Despite donor priorities, many organisations in the African region are worried that their current work – work with men on heath, equality, preventing GBV, for example – could be jeopardized if they explicitly engage in work with and for LGBTI people. 

For many organisations across Africa, promoting non-discriminatory access to HIV services for LGBTI people is often perceived to be the least controversial action to take, largely because it can be framed as a public health issue rather than an LGBTI rights issue.

Because the work of MenEngage focuses on changing masculinities and involving men and boys in work to enhance gender equality and health equity, Sonke believes that we cannot overlook that homophobia is a central quality to so many dominant masculinities.  If we are committed to changing masculine norms to prevent violence and inequality, we must at some point address this deep-set hatred that many heterosexual male identities rely on. 

For those working in service provision, one tactic is to fight for LGBTI rights to access health and legal services, which are human rights enshrined within law. Other organisations can provide varying degrees of support to organisations whose mandate is explicitly to advocate for the full human rights for LGBTI people.

It is truly a fine balance to strike in these difficult times.  Interested organisations in the region should reach out to an organisation supporting LGBTI rights if you need assistance or if you know of violence against LGBTI people in your community.

By Maja Herstad and Tabitha Paine, Sonke Gender Justice Network, South Africa


The policy mapping was part of a larger policy scan, funded by UNDP, Sida and UNFPA. The scan included analysing policies’ strengths and weaknesses in relation to their engagement of men and boys and gender in key areas such as GBV, SRHR, parenting and HIV prevention.  On this information, the research provided recommendations for how policies can improve how they meet the specific needs of men and boys and enable them to support their partners, children and peers. See the update on the policy scan in this newsletter. 

If you are interested to learn more about LGBTI a short online course will be available soon from SAFAIDS.