A Congolese MP is leading the latest bid to criminalise homosexuality, but he will have to deal with a counter-campaign by LGBT activists and health workers if he is to be successful.
Kinshasa - As Uganda comes to terms with the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill recently signed into law, there some are pushing the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to follow in its footsteps.
Last December, Steve Mbikayi, an MP with the Parti Travailliste Congolais (PTC), introduced a draft bill to the Congolese National Assembly that would explicitly criminalise homosexuality. The DRC is one of the relatively few African countries in which homosexual acts have not been directly banned though there is much discrimination against LGBT communities.
Throughout February, Mbikayi toured the country to garner popular support for the bill. In addition to radio interviews and television appearances, the MP spoke at a conference organised at the University of Kinshasa where he condemned homosexuality and Western leaders for condoning "unnatural acts" such as paedophilia and bestiality. Mbikayi also defended his bill as being constitutional, citing article 40 of the Congolese constitution, which states that "all individuals have the right to marry a person of their choice of the opposite sex."
Mbikayi's bill - which has yet to be made public but which has been seen by Think Africa Press - contains 37 articles that would render homosexuality and transgenderism illegal. The proposed penalty for engaging in a homosexual act is 3 to 5 years in prison and a fine of 1 million Congolese francs (about $1,000); while a transgender person would face the same fine and a jail sentence of 3 to 12 years.
The draft also contains a passage promising that the Congolese government will pay three quarters of any medical costs to "correct hormonal disorders that may result in homosexuality."
"The bill emanates from the Travailliste Party's philosophy," Mbikayi explained to Think Africa Press. "In relation to our culture, homosexuality is an 'anti-value' that comes from abroad. Already, in our country, seeing a man with a man or a woman with a woman is considered scandalous. So I promised my base that I would take care of the issue and penalise homosexuals."
If Mbikayi is successful, the DRC could criminalise homosexuality, but this is not the first time an MP has tried to pass an anti-homosexuality bill in the DRC. In January 2009, a law preventing homosexuals from adopting children was passed. And in October 2010, a bill entitled the Law Concerning Sexual Practices Against Nature was put forward to the National Assembly by MP and bishop Evariste Ejiba Yamapia.
Similarly to Mbikayi's, this bill sought to modify the penal code and law on sexual violence by making what it called "counter-nature acts" - defined as homosexuality and zoophilia - punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine of 200,000 Congolese francs ($200). The bill would have also banned organisations, publications, posters, or pamphlets 'promoting unnatural sexual acts'.
This 2010 bill, however, was never voted on in a parliamentary session, for reasons that remain unconfirmed. Now, Congolese LGBT activists are hoping Mbikayi's bill goes the same way.
In response to Mbikayi's campaigning, human rights activists and HIV/AIDS workers have started informally petitioning MPs and sensitising the general public to the potentially damaging implications of the bill. And some activists are optimistic they can win the public battle over the draft law.
"In the city [Kinshasa], we know gays and transvestites who are known and accepted by their communities. No-one would try to attack them," explains Okakessema Olivier Nyamana, a lawyer from an NGO that works with HIV-positive people. "To me, it seems like political opportunism."
This view was shared by Patrick Civava, a lawyer and employee at the Kinshasa University's Centre for Human Rights, who sees Mbikayi's bill as little more than attention seeking. "Seeing that homosexuality in Africa is entering the international debate, he simply wants to draw attention to himself," he says.
With the next parliamentary session looming, however, others are more pessimistic. "My fear is that the bill will pass next week without anyone noticing," says Françoise Mukuku, the executive director of Si Jeunesse Savait, a feminist organisation that also advocates for the rights of LGBT people in the DRC.
Meanwhile, Hilaire Mbwolie, director of a local organisation that conducts HIV/AIDS counselling and testing, voices his concern on the grounds of how the bill might impact on public health. "A law like that blocks the combat against HIV/AIDS. It will make it hard to conduct HIV testing," he says.
A rising tide?
If the proposed bill attracts the necessary support, it could be debated in the DRC's next parliamentary session on 15 March.
To try and ensure this, Mbikayi, who represents the Tshangu district of Kinshasa, disclosed that he intends to organise sit-ins, debates and approach various religious groups to endorse his proposals. He also expressed an interest in meeting LGBT communities to debate with them the bill's legitimacy. LGBT activists meanwhile will be continue their own campaigning against the bill in the hope it never makes its way onto the parliamentary schedule.
If the bill were to be discussed and signed into law, the DRC would become the 38th African country to criminalise homosexuality and would provide another sign of a rising tide of legislative homophobia across the continent.
Valérie Bah is a Haitian-Canadian freelance journalist who focuses on marginalization and human rights with a particular interest in gender and LGBT equality. She works at the UN's refugee agency in Kinshasa and secretly plots a debut in creative non-fiction.