Across numerous countries in Southern Africa, harmful practices persist that attempt to suppress or alter the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) people. Broadly termed ‘conversion’ practices, these damaging actions can include beatings, rape and forced isolation, administration of drugs and hormones and religious ‘ritual cleansings’.
Parliamentarians possess a unique opportunity to take a proactive stance to address these practices and promote the creation of more inclusive societies that protect vulnerable populations from discrimination and violence. Their involvement as lawmakers and representatives can play a crucial role in creating positive change and fostering a society free from prejudice and harm.
On 18-19 April 2023 in Johannesburg, Outright International and its partners, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum, hosted a convening with 22 parliamentarians from 12 SADC countries and civil society representatives to discuss the issue of LGBTI+ conversion practices. The convening was also attended by South African government officials, including the Minister in the Presidency responsible for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Honorable Maropene Ramokgopa, and Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Honorable John Jeffrey.
The objective was to enhance the capacity of SADC parliamentarians to understand and address conversion practices in Africa, including the nature, extent and impact of such practices, and to recognize them as violations of human rights.
Minister Maropene Ramokgopa gave the keynote address where she noted the persistent lack of legal protections for LGBTI+ people, despite the development and adoption of key resolutions and protocols by SADC countries.
The Minister noted the significance of enacting protective laws that address discrimination and violence directed towards the LGBTI+ community and further highlighted the need to address patriarchal norms and social values that fuel discrimination and violence. She emphasized the need for regional solidarity to address violence, especially through the inclusion of community members in the development of policies and discourses, and raising awareness in rural areas.
“As SADC legislators, it is our role to pass laws to enable our citizens to exercise global, continental and regional protocols and resolutions as enshrined in legislation,” said Minister Maropene Ramokgopa. “We cannot truly unite as a region, if we are divided by the violation of fundamental human rights, including those of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
In 2019, Outright International, working with local partner organizations in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, conducted research on the nature and impact of conversion practices. The researchers presented their findings and made recommendations on strategies to advance the inclusion and protection of LGBTI+ rights in Africa. Dr Ayodele Sogunro, a human rights lawyer and activist, spoke about existing international and regional human rights frameworks and how they can be used to protect the rights of LGBTI+ persons, especially protecting them from being subjected to conversion practices. These practices, which he defined as, “techniques, activities and practices which attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person, generally meant to ‘cure’ or ‘treat’ a homosexual or transgender identity” are based on two false premises: firstly, that homosexual or transgender identities are a disease, addiction or religious aberration that can be cured and/or changed; and secondly, that people can be converted to cisgender heterosexuality through such practices.
Dr Sogunro emphasized that human rights should remain a core foundation of social interaction, governance and policymaking and called on States to adopt legislative, administrative, judicial and policy measures to give effect to the rights guaranteed by the African human rights system and fulfil their accompanying State obligations.
Professor Melanie Judge, Senior Advisor on LGBTI+ Inclusion in Africa at UNDP, presented on the SADC Strategy and Framework of Action for Addressing Gender Based Violence (GBV) and how it can be used as a key instrument to address conversion practices in the region. This and other SADC protocols and standards can be utilized to respond proactively in an inclusive manner that recognizes GBV directed against individuals based on their sexuality, gender, gender identity or gender expression. She noted, “If we view conversion practices as a form of violence, then we have some powerful existing instruments to address it head-on, including …(the) normative regional framework on GBV.”
She suggested that Members of Parliament could implement measures to protect LGBTI+ people from conversion practices and these could include: shaping the discourse in gender/GBV parliamentary committees and other entities; working to repeal laws that discriminate based on sex, sexuality, gender, gender identity and expression; supporting the development and/or implementation of national GBV strategies that address LGBTI+ issues; and advocating for the enactment and enforcement of laws that prevent harmful social and cultural practices, and which provide comprehensive support services and recourse for all survivors.
South Africa Deputy Minister of Justice, John Jeffery, shared learnings from South Africa, including the crucial step of adopting various progressive laws and policies to ensure the inclusion and protection of LGBTI+ people. However, he noted, issues of societal intolerance and violent attitudes towards women and sexual minorities persist and need to be addressed urgently.
Dr Adrian Jjuuko, a Ugandan human rights lawyer, researcher and activist, spoke about the rise of anti-gender legislation in Africa. He said that such laws are aimed at attacking the weakest in society as a way of appealing to populist, and usually vaguely defined, notions of African morality, and traditional family values.
Dr Jjuuko called on SADC parliamentarians to “urgently engage MPs in countries where anti-gender legislation is being considered about the dangers of such legislation; … and push for more protective laws.”
Monica Tabengwa, Policy Specialist at UNDP, led a panel discussion with parliamentarians on practical steps for parliamentarians to take to advance LGBTI+ inclusion, and introduced Advancing the Human Rights and Inclusion of LGBTI People: A Handbook for Parliamentarians, a resource by UNDP and Parliamentarians for Global Action that has recently been translated into French and Portuguese. She highlighted that while the handbook was designed for use by parliamentarians, it is also a useful resource for civil society advocates, judges, lawyers, government employees, religious leaders and others interested in LGBTI+ inclusion.
In the closing of the meeting, the Secretary General of the SADC Parliamentary Forum, Boema Sekgoma, urged participants to “work together to build inclusive communities and countries where everybody is safe, and every individual enjoys the full right to health, life and other human rights.”
The convening was supported by the #WeBelongAfrica Programme, a UNDP-led programme that promotes inclusive, just, affirming, safe, productive and fulfilling lives for all people in Africa, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics, and irrespective of HIV status or risk.