Strategic Pathways to Inclusion and Rights for LGBTI People in Sub-Saharan Africa

An activist holds up a rainbow flag to celebrate inside Botswana High Court in Gaborone on June 11, 2019. - Botswana's Court ruled on June 11 in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, handing down a landmark verdict greeted with joy by gay rights campaigners. (Photo by Tshekiso Tebalo / AFP) (Photo credit should read TSHEKISO TEBALO/AFP/Getty Images)

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. The agenda includes a “pledge that no one will be left behind” and commitments to prioritize the poorest and most marginalized. While there is no explicit attention to sexual and gender nonconforming people in the official SDG declaration by the UN, almost all of the UN’s development and human rights agencies and programs recognize that in most contexts around the world, LGBTI people are among the most marginalized and therefore in need of specific policy and programmatic attention if the SDGs are going to be achieved.

Given this context, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) convened a workshop in April 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a broad cross-section of relevant stakeholders. The workshop was designed to discuss and develop a strategic framework for advancing social inclusion and human rights for sexual and gender minorities in sub-Saharan Africa as part of the effort to achieve the SDGs. Most importantly, a vision emerged from the workshop that the countries of sub-Saharan Africa will enable equal, inclusive, just, affirming, safe, productive, and fulfilling lives for all their people by 2030, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or sex characteristics.

Such a vision can be driven by African values of dignity, fairness, acceptance of diversity, and respect for privacy, underpinned by the concept of Ubuntu—the universal bond of a shared humanity. This article summarizes the strategic pathways developed at the workshop, with the intention of advancing progress towards the vision of truly inclusive SDGs in the region.

There is nothing new about diversity in sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics—in Africa or elsewhere. Many African languages have a variety of words and expressions for such diversity. Scholars have highlighted a wide range of long-standing cultural norms and practices that accommodate or celebrate sexual and gender diversity in numerous African societies. Such inclusion is typically reinforced by cultural traditions, including protection of community members and respect for the dignity of all persons.

However, colonial rule imposed legal and religious frameworks onto African identities and practices that have contributed to today’s widespread intolerance and exclusion of people in Africa who identify as LGBTI+ or who are seen as sexual or gender nonconforming. On a day-to-day basis, most sexual or gender nonconforming people in sub-Saharan Africa remain excluded by their family and community, vulnerable to multiple forms of violence, without access to appropriate public services, and economically and politically marginalized.

Thirty-three sub-Saharan African countries still criminalize some form of same-sex contact or minority gender expression. A court in Kenya just reaffirmed such criminalization as recently as May 2019. Only 21 offer some form of legal protection. Surveys show that a large proportion of the population of most African countries do not welcome LGBTI+ people as neighbors. A subset of conservative religious leaders actively promote the denial or hatred of sexual and gender minorities, as do many opportunistic political elites.

Further, there is a rising trend among conservative and populist governments in some countries to actively initiate legal reform to criminalize adult same-sex relationships or make it more difficult for LGBTI+ organizations to continue to function and support their communities. Opponents of LGBTI+ rights and inclusion are well-funded and well-organized, and they have scored some notable successes with so-called “anti-homosexuality” or “anti-propaganda” legislation.

Fortunately, a growing number of Africans have been challenging such social exclusion and associated human rights violations, often with considerable success. A rapidly growing and increasingly diverse set of civil society actors is promoting acceptance of sexual and gender nonconforming people, often working with parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, media influencers, and others committed to a broader vision of a developed, inclusive, just, and diverse Africa. The disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on gay men, bisexual men, and trans women has also raised awareness of sexual and gender diversity in Africa, as has the movement against gender-based violence.

From the promulgation of South Africa’s first democratic constitution in 1996 to the repeal of punitive laws and adoption of protective measures in Angola in early 2019, legal equality, recognition, and protection are making slow but steady progress across the continent. This progress is driven by parliamentary processes, strategic litigation, and persistent advocacy by the LGBTI+ movement and its allies. Health services, particularly related to HIV, are increasingly designed to recognize and respond to sexual diversity. Multiple court decisions, including in Botswana in 2017, have afforded legal gender recognition for transgender persons. Social and cultural inclusion, visibility and acceptance of sexual and gender minorities, and the abrogation or reading down of legal and penal provisions criminalizing adult, consensual same-sex relationships have also increased in many sub-Saharan African countries, albeit unevenly and slowly.

The UNDP workshop identified and elaborated six, mutually reinforcing pathways to build on progress already achieved and to advance the vision of truly inclusive SDGs.

The first is the social pathway. Unequal power relations lie at the heart of prejudice. The attitudes and actions of friends, family members, community members, community leaders, and cultural influencers all play important roles in challenging (or perpetuating) prejudice, stigma, and marginalization. Social progress requires moving a critical mass of these social actors toward not only tolerating but also understanding and accepting sexual and gender diversity.

To begin with, the UN and other actors promoting such social change should learn from widespread research and practice about what works in shifting social norms—for example, from initiatives to prohibit female genital mutilation or child labor—and adapt these lessons for work on sexual and gender minorities. Such an evidence review must be the foundation for positive and inclusive messaging from both traditional and contemporary African cultural influencers, including through a range of cultural and media outlets, traditional and religious leaders, social media influencers, cultural celebrities, and other public figures.

Concurrent with work on social norms, the legal pathway is also important to ensuring that efforts to achieve the SDGs are inclusive of LGBTI+ people. Laws punishing consensual same-sex relationships between adults or denying or curtailing the rights of gender nonconforming people lead directly to harassment, state homophobia, extortion, and violence. They reinforce and are used to rationalize wider social discrimination and stigma. They also limit access to health, education, jobs, social protection, and other government services. Winning legal recognition of sexual or gender nonconforming people is therefore the foundation of action against discrimination.

Laws prohibiting discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or sex characteristics send a strong message against discrimination and in support of acceptance and inclusion while helping change social attitudes. On an individual level, recognition of an person’s gender identity and expression is also a fundamental element of full citizenship. At the same time, legal recognition and protection are not enough—such laws must also be enforced, and states must be held accountable for their human rights commitments and obligations.

Public services are perhaps the most direct pathway to including and protecting the rights of sexual and gender nonconforming people in the SDGs. Both the SDGs and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 are multi-sectoral and cross-sectoral. They recognize the importance of simultaneously making progress in poverty reduction, health, education, sustainable and inclusive cities, decent work, environmental sustainability, good governance, and more. Similarly, efforts to promote inclusion of sexual and gender minorities, as well as of other marginalized and excluded populations, must be multi-sectoral and cross-sectoral. Driven by the response to HIV, the health sector in many African countries is progressively becoming inclusive of and responsive to LGBTI+ people.

That said, more progress is still needed in providing health services for sexual and gender minorities, including mental health services, suicide prevention, and support to gender transition. Beyond the health sector, very little has been done. Priorities in other sectors include designing social protection programs to respond to LGBTI+ families and households; challenging bullying and stigmatization of gender nonconforming children in schools; and addressing disproportionate poverty and unemployment among LGBTI+ people who have been driven out of school, rendered homeless, or suffered violence.

Advancing legal reform and inclusive public services in turn requires strengthening democracy and governance more broadly. The role of the state goes beyond enacting and enforcing laws; it also includes ensuring public access to basic services in different sectors. In terms of human rights, the state is the most important “duty bearer,” with an obligation to respond to “rights holders.” Political leaders set the tone for inclusion—or exclusion. Strong democratic processes and institutions must include and protect minorities while simultaneously being accountable to the public with reference to, and the inclusion of (wherever possible), the right to state protection and the principles of “do no harm.”

Toward this end, movements for sexual or gender nonconforming people and movements promoting democracy, state accountability, and rule of law could strengthen their ties and mutual support for each other. It is essential to defend, and in many cases expand, space for a broad range of civil society actors (including those focused on sexual and gender minorities) to organize and to contribute to political processes, both formally and informally. Similarly, freedom of expression must be defended and expanded in a way that does not fuel hatred, including cultural and political expression related to sexual and gender diversity.

Much future progress depends on strengthening the LGBTI+ movement, its sub-components, and its allies. It is essential to increase their strength, diversity, and geographic and linguistic coverage and to promote intersectional approaches and mutual support and respect. Organized civil society groups, activists working alone and with others, and networks of such people and groups are all important actors to drive and influence progress along other pathways as well. Many social movements are relevant: those working across the spectrum of LGBTI+ (or sexual and gender minority) issues; those working for rights and inclusion of individual components of that broader movement (such as for trans people or lesbian/bi/queer women); and the many other movements that intersect with LGBTI+ issues, including the feminist movement, movements for decolonization, and movements for young people, linguistic or ethnic minorities, differently abled people, the poor and landless, and migrants.

Finally, each of the pathways described above should build on existing knowledge and evidence on sexuality and gender in Africa while also generating the new action-oriented, policy-relevant evidence required to scale up efforts. In addition, there is a need for both crosscutting evidence and a critical mass of public intellectuals and academics to deepen and disseminate knowledge about sexual and gender diversity in sub-Saharan Africa. By drawing on local histories and traditions of inclusion as well as contemporary evidence about what works, this will challenge those who claim that sexual or gender nonconforming people are somehow “un-African” and help shift laws, policies, services, and social norms.

Jeffrey O’Malley is a consultant focusing on strategy and governance issues in public health and LGBTI inclusion. He has previously worked as Director of Policy and Strategy for UNICEF and as Director of HIV, Health and Development for UNDP.