Gender Links (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Widespread Homophobia Among Member States

South Africa's Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana presented her statement to the delegates of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday 6 March.

The Minister applauded the progress South Africa has made and is still making in advancing gender equality. She spoke about the high representation of women in political leadership as well as a Women Empowerment and Gender Equity Bill that government will soon pass which necessitates a 50/50 representation of women in decision-making positions. She also boasted about President Zuma's launch of the Stop Rape Campaign, which aims to educate 10.2 million learners on norms and values, rights and responsibilities, as part of the school curriculum, in response to the high rate of gender based violence (GBV) in South Africa.

An important point that she made was South Africa's exemplary role within both the African global regions highlighting the need for the inclusion of sexual minorities within the discussions of violence and GBV; "We continue to condemn in the strongest possible terms the targeting of the LGBTI community, including the so called corrective rape, violence and killings. We deplore these inhumane acts that target people on the basis of their sexual orientation."

CSW's priority theme this year is the "Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. But apparently many member states and delegates do not comprehend the "all" in that theme nor do they accept that "women" includes those of sexual minorities and women that are part of the LGBTI groups (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Interesexed). It is obvious that at the 57th session of this commission, human rights do not extend to sexual minorities. Not only are their rights not acknowledged, but their humanity is still not recognised.

I wandered about the main UN building today trying to get a regional perspective on the rights of sexual minorities and where this sits on the agenda of various member states. It seems that the advancement of sexual minority rights are almost totally ignored and if not, then unequivocally condemned.

I approached a number of female delegates from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As soon as I mentioned the words "lesbian" and "gay", almost in unison these women brawled, "There are no lesbians or gays in our country. We do not accept it, it is very bad and we will never allow it. We cannot let any law pass". I grit my teeth.

A delegate representing Ghana and political leader of the ruling party said, "No we promote human rights... we are not going to promote this in our country... we have a culture to protect".

A Moroccan delegation said that because of religion and culture gay marriage is unacceptable, "We advocate normal families made up of fathers, mothers, and children. Lesbians and gays must not disturb the order of things. As long as they don't do it in public, they won't be condemned but if they are caught they will be punished", one representative plainly explained. I did not bother asking what constitutes "normal" and I got no answer about what this punishment would entail.

An American NGO member spoke in her personal capacity, explaining that America has a long way to go in recognising the rights of LBGTI. Although Obama has endorsed gay marriage, few states have done so and California took a backward step by recalling gay marriage. She also said that there is a lot of prejudice against sexual minorities and that although the constitution prohibits any form of discrimination, what happens in reality is a different story.

A delegate from a Mozambican NGO explained that the rights of sexual minorities are not a priority on their nation's agenda and is in conflict with the constitution. He said, "If someone was a victim of violence because of their sexual orientation they would not get justice. If it was reported it would be lodged under a domestic violence case".

A Nigerian women representing another NGO was bragging about Nigeria's lower house of government pushing for life sentences for perpetrators of violence against women, but LBGTI issues have previously been thrown out of the agenda. "Nigeria is against LGBTI rights because of religion and cultural beliefs".

The tiny gleam of hope was brought by a Malian representative; "LGBTI rights are a problem, people practice in the shadows, it is illegal and taboo. There are no activists in Mali, their lives would be in danger. We need to hear success stories from South Africa". Abram Phahlamohlaka who is part of the South African government delegation from the Department of Social Development said that South Africa commended for taking a leading role on LGBTI but there is a lot of opposition. "There is a high level of resistance. We need to work to break the resistance of other countries", he said.

This comes as no surprise since at the annual Southern African Development Community (SADC) Council of Non Govermental Organisations (C-NGO) ahead of the the Heads of State Summit last year in Maputo, the rights of LGBTI and Sexual minorities were described as "not African". As the chair read out the sexual minorities clause in the communiqué on gender, participants started making noise with a certain group of people demanding that the section on sexual minorities be removed or they would not endorse the final communiqué.

If this perspective continues at country levels, it isn't any wonder that such homophobia extends to CSW at the UN.

Although South Africa is taking a strong and exceptional stance, in reality homophobic murmurings are still widespread in government. Sexual minorities are still discriminated against and victimised. Lesbians in rural areas are still victims of rape and brutality. Moreover, we saw last year at Gay Pride Johanessburg, the gay flag of South Africa represents a commercialised, apolitical and racist movement that does not recognise or lobby against the plight of black lesbians and other sexual minorities in rural areas.

All this said I certainly do not negate the rare 'privilege' of exercising my human rights and being able to live and love freely and publically in some parts South Africa. South Africa has a long way to go, but we are far ahead of the rest of the world. The hypocrisy of supposed human rights activists needs to be challenged. These people need to realise that the rights of sexual minorities are also human rights.

Minister Xingwana also said, "It will be a travesty and a betrayal of billions of women across the world, if again this year we fail to adopt the Agreed Conclusions because of divisions on these issues."

It will also be a travesty if sexual minorities are not included amongst the "billions of women". It will be an even greater travesty if sexual minorities are not afforded their humanity and these agreed conclusions do not attend to their plight.

Katherine Robinson is the communications manager for Gender Links. This article is part of GL's special coverage of CSW 57

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