Dakar — US President Barack Obama's recent call for equality for gays during his Africa tour drew assurances by his Senegalese counterpart that the country was not homophobic. Yet dismantling anti-gay laws and attitudes carries huge political and religious risks few leaders in the continent are willing to take, rights groups say.
President Macky Sall told his guest that Senegal was not ready to decriminalize homosexuality, which is punishable under the country's laws by up to five years imprisonment or fines between US$200 and $3,000.
"President Obama's visit made us understand the president's [Sall] position about decriminalizing homosexuality," said a Senegalese activist who preferred to be identified as DD.
"President Sall added that the country is not homophobic, but if that is the truth, I'd like to know exactly what homophobia means to him," continued DD, who heads an organization that aims to prevent HIV transmission among homosexuals. "Before he [Sall] was elected, he pretended that he would resolve the issue socially, but now he has shown his true colours. But even if the debate is not in our favour, we are at least talking about it."
The Pew Global Attitudes Project found in a June study that 96 percent of Senegalese thinks homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
"In Senegal, people are prosecuted, hounded, [their bodies] exhumed because of their sexual orientation," said Djamil Bangoura, who heads an organization for Senegalese lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI).
While external pressure may have limited effectiveness in changing homophobic attitudes in Africa, "South Africa and Brazil have taken the lead in certain UN resolutions on LGBTI rights," Human Rights Watch LGBTI researcher Neela Ghoshal told IRIN. "This shows that it is no longer Africa against the West. Rwanda is also debating more about homosexuals' rights. It should take a bigger role in the debate."
Among the 37 African countries where homosexuality is criminalized, Senegal is notorious for convicting and jailing gays, Ghoshal said.
The responsibility of decriminalizing homosexuality rests upon the political class to influence the society, argued Ghoshal. "A president cannot simply change the law, but he can explain to the citizens the obligation to respect and ratify international human rights treaties," she said.
But fears of political, social and religious backlash undermine the political will to defend gay rights in places like Senegal, said Aboubacry Mbodji, the secretary general of the African Rally for Human Rights (RADDHO).
"No head of state is willing to commit [to defending gay rights] for fear of losing voters' support or the support of marabous [traditional religious leaders] who have a huge political influence in the country," Mbodji said.
"In Senegal, some recently radicalized people - extremist marabous - are at loggerheads with moderate religious brotherhood and urge for the lynching of homosexuals."
Certain interpretations of the Koran have added to the anti-gay laws, said DD, noting that other countries are more lenient. "In Morocco, an Islamic and a very religious country, homosexuality is tolerated, even if it's just by allowing gay bars."
"All depend on the mentality of the political leadership. Some leaders prefer just to govern and not touch on this [gay rights] debate. Others [are like Zimbabwe's] President Mugabe, who likes to exploit the issue during national crises to deflect attention," said Damian Ugwu, the Africa programme coordinator at International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
In Malawi, for instance, President Joyce Banda failed to hold on to a pledge to open debate about gay rights once she took power, said Ugwu. He also explained that anti-gay bills in Nigeria and Uganda have fuelled an intense debate between rights activists and religious fundamentalists.
"The right to live"
Senegalese NGOs involved with LGBTI limit their activities to health matters, leaving rights issues to a handful of local and international activists, said Bangoura. Many homosexuals live in hiding for fear of the law.
There are public health consequences, according to RADDHO, which says that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Senegal is 21 percent while the national prevalence is about 1 percent, largely because discrimination against homosexuals hinders their access to health services.
"Changing mentalit[ies] is a protracted struggle, more complicate[d] than a simple decriminalization [of homosexuality]," DD said. "People tend to think that homosexuality does not exist in the country, that it originated from the West. A Senegalese should stand and declare that 'I am a homosexual'.
"Moreover it is not about legalizing marriage or adoption by gay couples, but simply having the right to live."
Mbodji says, "It takes time for changes to happen. In the West, acceptance of LGBTI people took several years, and even the recent legal reforms in France and the US did not stop certain groups of people from protesting."
But the fact that there is debate at all on a topic that was considered taboo a few years ago indicates there has been some progress, contends IGLHRC.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]