Zimbabwe early this month appeared before the Universal Periodic Review meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, where the country’s human rights record came under scrutiny. The delegation, led by Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa was also quizzed about the abuse of the lesbians, gays, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBT) community.
the big interview BY BLESSED MHLANGA
Mnangagwa claimed the government had rejected proposals by some European countries to allow same-sex marriages in exchange for budgetary support, but Chester Samba (CS) the director of the Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (Galz) told our reporter Blessed Mhlanga (BM) in a wide-ranging interview that the VP’s claims were not true. Below are excerpts of the interview.
BM: After the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, the Zimbabwean government delegation claimed it had rejected demands that the country must legalise same-sex marriages in exchange for foreign aid. Were these reports a true reflection of what happened in Geneva?
CS: The Zimbabwe government’s assertion that Zimbabwe was asked to legalise same-sex marriages are an inaccurate report of the UPR process of the recommendations targeting LGBTI people that were put to Zimbabwe.
Of the 10 countries that gave recommendations to Zimbabwe around LGBTI issues, the recommendations focused on discrimination, criminalisation of same-sex conduct and addressing stigma. Galz and the Sexual Rights Centre made recommendations to repeal section 73 of the Criminal Code and Reform Act, 2006 (Chapter 9:23), to ensure that same-sex activity between consenting adults is not subject to criminal sanctions. We also called upon Zimbabwe to create measures to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of the LGBTI community, including access to healthcare, employment, housing and education and a repeal of the Public order Security Act and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to protect freedom of expression, association, petition, peaceful demonstration and assembly and to discontinue restrictions on LGBTI and sex work advocacy.
BM: What was Galz’s agenda in Geneva and do you think you achieved the goals you had set yourselves?
CS: Our agenda was to appraise the NGO delegation and the Human rights Commission on the human rights situation of LGBTI individuals since Zimbabwe’s first review in 2011.
We demonstrated through fact that Zimbabwe’s treatment of its LGBTI community directly contradicts its commitment to the preservation of equal rights and principles of non-discrimination as enshrined in the constitution that guarantees, among other rights, “all persons are equal before the law and have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law,” and that “every person has the right not to be treated in an unfairly discriminatory manner on such grounds as their… sex, gender,…or social status”.
Galz highlighted how the refusal by some duty bearers and policymakers to engage with and rectify Zimbabwe’s flagrantly negative approach to basic human rights for LGBTI individuals causes public intolerance to become deeply ingrained in the Zimbabwean community and reinforces the general stigmatisation of sexual minorities in society.
Finally, we proved that Zimbabwe has failed to protect LGBTI individuals from numerous human rights abuses within its jurisdiction. By directly curtailing fundamental rights through state action, by allowing others to abuse the fundamental rights of the LGBTI community with impunity, and by not protecting sexual minorities from discrimination or guaranteeing their equal protection under law, Zimbabwe was in direct violation of both its own constitution and its international human rights treaty obligations. We achieved the goals we had set as demonstrated by the resultant recommendations that were given to Zimbabwe and the 10 or more states that also highlighted the plight of our community.
BM: Do you think LGBTI rights are regarded as human rights in Zimbabwe and if not so, what are you doing to change people’s attitudes and perceptions?
CS: Zimbabwe is violating many of the fundamental human rights of LGBTI individuals within its jurisdiction. We hold the view that there are no LGBTI rights. however, the general human rights as they apply to LGBTI people would be more appropriate as looking at it as LGBTI rights is a little misleading as it suggests a rights regiment for LGBTIs that is different from all other rights holders. This is not the case as LBGTIs are subject to the same rights and duties as every other citizen in Zimbabwe. The Constitution generally does not distinguish citizens on the basis of sexual orientation or preference. The only such distinction is with respect to marriage. The extent to which the generality of Zimbabweans enjoy their human rights could be measured by how Zimbabwe treats its minorities.
BM: You are on record saying same-sex marriages are no longer on the agenda for the LGBTI community in Zimbabwe. What informed this stance?
CS: Galz maintains that same-sex marriage is not on the agenda and not even something we are considering, at least at this stage. Government propaganda continues to foist this agenda on us.
We still suffer from basic humiliations such as the criminalisation of sexual acts between men and vitriolic verbal attacks and ridicule from our national leaders. We also share all the major problems faced by the majority of Zimbabweans when it comes to the curtailment of fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to receive and impart information, the right to work and the rights to health and freedom from fear and poverty.
BM: Besides the legal hurdles, do you think ordinary Zimbabweans would support same-sex marriages?
CS: Zimbabwe is generally conservative, hence the issue of same sex marriage is one that is meant to shut down debate or conversations around human rights abuses which threaten our safety, our livelihoods and our lives. It would be premature for us to table marriage when we still suffer from basic humiliations such as the criminalisation of sexual acts between men and vitriolic verbal attacks and ridicule from our national leaders.
BM: What are some of the main challenges facing the LGBTI community in Zimbabwe?
CS: The criminalisation of same-sex conduct is a major challenge to the LGBTI community, specifically the strict sodomy laws, including the more expansive prohibition and criminalisation of any activity perceived as homosexual in nature. LGBTI individuals also experience arbitrary detention by authorities at a disproportionate rate simply due to their identity as sexual minorities.
While some examples of detention may not be a result of laws directly criminalising same sex activity, many other instances of Zimbabwe’s arbitrary detention of LGBTI individuals are a result of the adverse consequence of the highly stigmatised and discriminatory environment which these laws create.
There have been a number of reports citing incidents of violence against LGBTI persons. In many cases, the violence in question is perpetrated directly by state actors. Just in the last few years, there have been multiple reported instances where LGBTI individuals in Zimbabwe have been physically assaulted by police officers while in police custody. The state also allows violence to occur against LGBTI individuals with impunity. A number of violent incidents have occurred against LGBTI individuals either in social settings, such as neighbourhood bars, or after having their sexual orientation revealed to family members
Extortion with impunity against LGBTI individuals in Zimbabwe has been documented on both a state-based and privatised level. Extortion has taken the form of demands for money, personal belongings, or other valuables in order to keep the blackmailer silent. LGBTI individuals often succumb to such extortions due to fear of being discriminated against, being disowned by their family, or being faced with the possibility of criminal charges due to Section 73 or other relevant laws which discriminate against LGBTI people.
LGBTI individuals in Zimbabwe are also experiencing violations of their economic, social, and cultural rights. Many LGBTI individuals have found themselves treated poorly when visiting public health institutions, therefore making it difficult for them to seek out and receive healthcare. Numerous LGBTI individuals have reported having their employment discontinued after supervisors and colleagues discovered their sexual orientation. The LGBTI population in Zimbabwe has reported high rates of eviction and homelessness on account of landlords or families discovering their sexual orientation. LGBTI persons in Zimbabwe have reported expulsions due to their sexual orientation or gender identity at both secondary and tertiary education levels; even without expulsion, many LGBTI individuals withdraw from school at an early age due to the effects of discrimination.
Lastly, we are affected by restrictions on association, expression and assembly, Zimbabwe’s government has persistently obstructed human rights organisations from standing up for the rights of LGBTI individuals.
BM: How would you describe Galz membership? how big is the LGBTI population in Zimbabwe?
CS: Galz only serves a portion of the LGBTI population in this country owing to the challenges highlighted earlier. we have an annual reach of up to 5 000 community members nationally. Of those we reach, these can be identified as the ones that are bold enough to make contact with us. there remains a larger population that remains unserviced. it is difficult for LGBTI people to come out and seek services from organisation like Galz because the political and social contexts pose a great risk to their existence, hence many have been forced into silence and into hiding, mainly due to fear.
BM: There have been claims that some politicians who bash gays during the day are your members. Is there any truth in that?
CS: I would not know of these politicians and would care any less if there are gays in government. I am concerned at the politicisation of homosexuality where politicians target gullible voters as they try to divert attention from the challenges affecting Zimbabwe such as the economy, poverty and unemployment with meaningless social issues that play on prejudices and fears such as gays in government.
Politicians have mastered that labelling someone gay in a very homophobic society is enough to silence critics and continue the rage with total disregard of the impact that this rhetoric has on the LGBTI community itself. There is a marked difference from Galz of 20 years ago when the state was after gays and lesbians; the change now is that the LGBTIs are not the direct target, but are being used as an instrument by politicians.
BM: Men having sex with men (MSM) are considered to be some of the high risk populations when it comes to HIV and Aids. Can you illustrate to us the extent of this problem?
CS: Zimbabwe now acknowledges that men who have sex with men are at a higher risk of HIV, hence they are a key population in government’s efforts to reduce HIV transmission. The Zimbabwe National Aids strategic Plan attempts on paper to seek to address this gap in programming in an effort to ensure Zimbabwe meets its own and the global targets around HIV. Galz has carried out studies that prove that there is a great risk of HIV in MSM as well as in women who have sex with women. We still continue to lobby government to undertake more research with our communities to effectively address HIV and to have data that can inform their programming efforts.
BM: Are your members included in government’s HIV prevention and management programmes?
CS: The government under the Global fund-supported programme has carried out nationwide sensitisation of healthcare workers on the needs of our community and how they can better serve LGBTI patients, as well as availing commodities for our community, although we feel that more can and should be done in working with key populations in Zimbabwe.
BM:As leader of the LGBTI community in Zimbabwe, what are some of the changes you would like to see in the country, be they legal or societal?
CS: l Zimbabwe to improve the lives of LGBTI citizens and end the systematic persecution of LGBTI people through discriminatory laws and practices, including allowing others to also violate the rights of the LGBTI community with impunity.
*An end to the arbitrary arrest and detention of sexual minorities, including an end to various acts of violence that are committed by both state actors and others that the state allows to act with impunity.
*Zimbabwe to uphold the human rights of all citizens, including that of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
*And most importantly to decriminalise same-sex conduct — which provides direct and indirect justification for all of the other rights violations.
BM: The hostility by the government led by President Robert Mugabe who describes gays as worse than dogs and pigs has driven some of your members underground. What are some of the dangers posed by such a scenario?
CS: As already highlighted, the violent homophobic language used by politicians from both major political parties exacerbates the general stigma against gays and lesbians in the community. Political leaders must cease making statements that in any way vilify, dehumanise, abuse, or slander LGBTI individuals
As Zimbabweans, we are well-placed because of our colonial past to understand the mechanisms of prejudice and oppression. How much suffering would have been avoided if the Rhodesian regime had accepted what is self-evident — that discrimination on the basis of race can never be justified. How much suffering can now be avoided if people can be made aware that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation can likewise never be justified and that such discrimination is a violation of one’s basic human rights.