6 November 2013

Zambia: Miracles Do Happen in Zambia

analysis

It's been a dreadful year for gay rights in Zambia with waves of homophobic hate speech interspersed with spurious arrests and public harassment of same sex couples. But last night an astonishing thing happened - the country's First Lady, Dr Christine Kaseba-Sata called for an end to discrimination against sexual minorities.

Speaking at a UNAIDS hosted reception, she said that the "silence around issues of Men who have Sex with Men should be stopped and no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. Rather, we should address reproductive health issues around this issue."

And if this were not enough - and in Zambia, it would have been earthshattering enough - she went even further to assure people working in the sexual and reproductive health sector of her and the president's support.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of what the First Lady said - in a country where the vast majority of people are opposed to gay rights. Indeed, where most people are totally opposed to even discussing the topic. And where two men are on trial for "having carnal knowledge against the order of nature" and another, Paul Kasonkomona, is on trial for talking on TV about the rights of LGBTI individuals (and indeed all individuals) in relation to the on-going battle against HIV.

And it's not just because she is the First Lady that her statement will carry real weight, although that guarantees headlines and media attention. She is also one of Zambia's most recognised specialists in obstetrics and gynaecology and has practiced as a physician at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka for more than 25 years, and lectured for the past 15 years at the University of Zambia School of Medicine.

Dr Kaseba-Sata also has clout beyond Zambia's borders since she is currently one of WHO's Goodwill Ambassador against Gender-based Violence and the current chairperson of the Forum of African First Ladies against cervical and breast cancer.

And the First Lady's remarkable - and potentially game-changing - statement comes just a few days after another renowned doctor and HIV activist, Manase Phiri, championed gay rights at Evelyn Hone college.

Needless to say Dr Phiri has been assailed by religious bigots and homophobes, who bandy the words 'bible' and 'evil' around with gay abandon. But he is an easy target.

It will be fascinating to see how they respond to the First Lady's comments.

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