Transgender rights under threat in Central Africa

The sentencing of two transgender women to five years in prison on Tuesday for ‘attempted homosexuality’ is the latest example of what appears to be a “new upsurge of anti-LGBT persecution” in Cameroon and across Central Africa.

Alice Nkom, a Cameroonian lawyer who “vowed” to fight the verdict, has argued that because the law doesn’t criminalize any forms of sexual identity (it criminalizes same-sex relations), the two transgender women should be released.

“It is not illegal to be homosexual or transgender,” she said. “According to Cameroonian law, it is the act which is the crime.”

At the time of their arrest in February, the two transgender women were reportedly not engaged in any “act” but were instead targeted by police “in the street on the basis of their gender expression” in Douala, Cameroon, according to Human Rights Watch, an NGO.

The transgender women were also charged with “public indecency” and “lack of identity cards”.

Yet Nkom argues the arrests and sentencing reflect the anti-LGBT stance of the Cameroonian government. “It’s Yaounde (the central government) that said these people must not bring homosexuality to Cameroon,” CNN quoted her as saying.

In the span of a month and a half, from February to mid April, Human Rights Watch has documented “at least” 24 people whom “Cameroonian security forces have arbitrarily arrested, beaten, or threatened…for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity.”

And this series of abuses follows a May 2020 mass arrest on “‘homosexuality’ related offenses” of 53 “mostly” LGBT people at an event hosted by an HIV organization.

And several people, including three teenagers ages 15 to 17 have been “subjected to forced anal examinations and HIV tests.”

One transgender woman, an adult, described the forced examinations as ‘the most humiliating thing’ she’d ever experienced.

According to Human Rights Watch, medical reports from forced exams have been used as evidence against defendants.

“These recent arrests and abuses raise serious concerns about a new upsurge in anti-LGBT persecution in Cameroon,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, Cameroon is not the only country in the region where LGBT people have recently suffered abuse.

Northwest of Cameroon, three transgender women were attacked by a “group of men” outside a bar in Cotonou, Benin on April 30.

Amnesty International, an NGO, reviewed video evidence showing the transgender women being “forced to undress, beaten, and robbed by a group of men at a bar in the capital”.

The victims of the assault are reportedly still receiving threats. Amnesty International reported on Thursday that “since the attack, none of the three has been able to return home.”

“After the videos were posted on social media, some of their parents threatened to kill or poison them if they returned home,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “Other parents advised them to keep a low profile for a while.”

LGBT associations across the country have also been threatened, and the president of one organization told Amnesty International they had personally been “insulted” prior to the April attack.

Human rights advocates in Cameroon and Benin have called on authorities to protect the rights of all citizens as well as the “associations that defend them,” in the case of Benin.

“The Cameroonian government has an obligation to uphold the rights of everyone in Cameroon, regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch said.

Fabien Offner, Amnesty International West Africa researcher, said “The [Beninese] authorities must prevent them [the three transgender women] from living in a hostile environment.”

Ghoshal called on Cameroonian authorities to halt “arbitrary arrests on the basis of sexual identity and forced anal examinations,” adding that the government should “repeal the law criminalizing consensual same sex-relations” – the law as written “puts LGBT people at a heightened risk of being mistreated…without any consequences for the abusers,” she added.

Human Rights Watch noted that as a party to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), any “criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct between adults” in Cameroon would be in violation of the treaty – as would “involuntary HIV and sexually transmitted infection tests,” which would also violate the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Furthermore, Cameroon is a party to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights whose oversight body has stated that the principle of “equal protection before the law and nondiscrimination extends to sexual orientation.”  

And while Benin does not criminalize same-sex “activity,” Offner said lawmakers should enact legislation to “prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression and recognize and protect human rights defenders” particularly those “who defend the rights of transgender and intersex people.”

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Charter’s oversight body,  has “called for African governments to end all forms of violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and to bring abuses to justice,” Human Rights Watch noted.

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