I was in Uganda a couple of weeks ago. Discussions I had there with colleagues from across the world raised a topic about which international charities have been far too quiet.
In the last few years, there’s been a growth in extreme and punitive laws against homosexuality in some of the poorest countries in the world.
Uganda tried to introduce capital punishment for sex between consenting adults and is now threatening another new law. India, having decriminalised gay sex, saw its legal prohibition reinstated by the courts earlier this year. Nigeria has made recognising same-sex relationships and even joining gay clubs illegal. Many countries have retained the anti-gay laws that were introduced by the British in colonial eras.
Although I’ve campaigned for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights all my life, it’s often seemed to have little to do with my work in international development, especially my focus on health in low-income countries.
But I’ve always felt uncomfortable that we see this as a minor issue compared with the extreme poverty and inequality that characterise low and middle income countries. I can think of three good reasons why we in the NGO world – and especially children’s organisations – should speak out much more about the abuse and discrimination seen in these countries.
First, we’re rights-based organisations and should never be silent about any rights violations. LGBT people have the right to freedom from persecution and discrimination and we have to power to challenge these abuses. While people are entitled to their personal and religious opinions about homosexuality, they’re not entitled to imprison, murder or assault gay people.
Second, we need to point out that these governments – most with massive poverty and inequalities – are spending so much time and energy debating and passing laws to persecute a small number of people. At best, it’s a distraction from the important problems that they should be dealing with. At worst, it’s a deliberate attempt by leaders to hold onto power and distract people from their failures.
Finally, and perhaps most important, we should be clear about the intrinsic connection between discrimination against LGBT people and gender equality and women’s rights. It’s pretty much universally acknowledged that societies that deny women’s rights to own property, be free of sexual violence, control their reproduction or be employed are societies that can’t develop to be effective and fair.
An important part of this is the rigid enforcement of gender norms and behaviour. Girls must be quiet, unassertive and submit to men’s decisions. Boys must be dominant and aggressive. And of course, a key part of these fictitious stereotypes is that girls do not love girls and boys do not love boys. The vicious punishment of children’s behaviour that strays from gender stereotypes has exactly the same roots as the homophobia we see worldwide.
As this debate hots up globally, international development organisations should be much clearer on this aspect of human rights.