The head of the Health Development Initiative Rwanda Dr Aflodis Kagaba has revealed that negative attitudes towards homosexuality in Rwanda are changing.
In an article published on the East African newspaper’s web site on August 7, Kagaba, Executive Director of the non-governmental organisation located in Kigali, said that their campaign to foster advocacy work and sensitisation on issues concerning homosexuals, which began in 2009, is slowly paying off in terms of the change of attitudes, although homosexuality still remains a thorny issue in many African countries.
Kagaba spearheads a coalition of over 40 groups conducting campaigns and advocacy work for sexual minorities within the country. The campaign was initiated when talks about criminalising same-sex relationships started as part of revisions to Rwanda’s Penal Code.
“Around that time in the region, there was a drive to criminalise homosexuality, not only in Rwanda, but also in Uganda and Burundi, all the parliaments in the region took up the cause to create articles to criminalise [it], and so when the article was introduced, there was a lot of pressure,” said Kagaba, in the article.
Kagaba added, “In the beginning, of course, it was very challenging. We were experiencing hate speech, people phoning in to radio programmes saying, ‘Kill them, take them back to the West, they’re not part of us.’ So for me, there’s an issue of lack of awareness, and of ignorance of human rights, that needs to continue to be addressed.”
Kagaba explains that the change of attitudes in Rwanda can be attributed to the “Very strong historical memory of what discrimination can do to any particular group, which for me is why I think their response has been very positive, in contrast to the other countries in the region. [It seems] the government has learned from its history that any discrimination against any particular group can cause more negative consequences, and I think that’s why the leadership was very responsive on this issue.”
In contrast, according to last year’s research study titled Lived Realities of Open Lesbians living in Kigali, lesbians were still harassed and stigmatised due to their sexual orientation, causing a “profound impact on their quality of life.”
A participant, who gave her name only as Nusher, said discrimination and harassment are the most common issues they face almost on a day to day basis.
“Everyone has experienced discrimination and harassment, I’m having difficulties with the local authorities because I live with my partner in the same house and people have reported us to the local authorities. People surrounded us and wanted to bring in the media to expose us, but I wasn’t threatened”, she said.
Naome Ruzindana, Director for Horizon Community Association, a gay rights organisation in Rwanda, said lesbians are completely ignored and misunderstood, and as a result suffer because the mainstream culture has to date been intolerant. She claimed that even in traditional society lesbians existed but were never accepted.
“Many lesbians in Rwanda are treated as sexual deviants and they are misunderstood and have gone through a lot of experiences. Rwandese Society itself was and remains closed with regard to discussion of sex and sexuality”, added Ruzindana.
Ruzindana concluded that the study led to the realisation of the terrible and stigmatised lives of the LGBTI community in Rwanda as cultural and religious beliefs remain the grounds in which homosexuality is condemned in Rwanda and have been major causes of the hatred of homosexuals, fuelling homophobia, discrimination and harassment.
Currently in Rwanda there is no law criminalising homosexuality. Homosexuality is criminal in most African countries.
Following interventions from Rwandan civil society as well as the international community and governments in 2009, the Rwandan Government indicated that Article 217 which, if included, would criminalise homosexuality for the first time in Rwanda, will not be a part of the final text of the penal code revisions.
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