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November, I sent my associate Chris Westling to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to meet with LGBT activists and discuss the lack of progress in the area of human rights as related to LGBT issues. Currently, it is a crime punishable by imprisonment to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in Tanzania. This year, the business magazine International Business Times ranked LGBT rights in the country among the fifth worst on the continent behind Nigeria, Uganda, Cameroon, and Senegal. While some of the countries on this list are less widely known for their human rights offenses as related to the LGBT community in Africa, Uganda and its attempts to make being LGBT punishable by death is no surprise, and probably the most notorious of the lot. As sub-Saharan Africa becomes more of an economic force in the world I wanted to start looking into specific countries on the continent where human rights violations are either overlooked or just not in our collective consciousness – ones where this type of environment allows and even condones violence against LGBT youth. It’s imperative that we all know more.
Once in Tanzania, Chris met with Mohamed Mbata and James Wandera Ouma – two men who work together at LGBT Voice Tanzania. As it stands now, the penalty for gay relationships in this East African country is life in prison. But this is not the top worry of Mohamed Mbata, the openly gay deputy director of LGBT Voice. His primary concern is violence toward gay youth in a climate where assailants can act with impunity.
As a young gay man, Mbata experienced violence as a direct result of his sexuality. Once, he said, "in Dar es Salaam, I was beat up on the street by a man who had identified me for my work on LGBT rights. Stories like this happen every day. I came out as gay at 25 years old and my family was shocked," Mbata said. "My father hated me. They’re fine now, as long as I stay far away from them."
Mbata’s organization, based in Dar Es Salaam – Tanzania’s largest city – gives three months of entrepreneurship training to the gay youth living on the streets. The training helps vulnerable youth establish micro-businesses to help them become more self-sufficient. Mbata is cautiously optimistic and says modestly, "We are making progress little by little." This truly is a good way to help the youth establish roots in their community, but it is only a first step and coastal East Africa needs more programs like this for change to take place on a larger scale.
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