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How universal are human rights for the LGBTQAI+ community?

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Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)/taken March 4, 2023 – The eagerly anticipated Cape Town, South Africa, Pride parade was celebrated through Somerset Road towards the Green Point Track. Mobilising the South African and other African governments to act on the parliamentary bill criminalising the LGBTQAI+ will help to liberate this community that continues to be oppressed and discriminated against in Uganda, the writer says.

By Kgaladi Makhafola

The question of the universality of human rights for LGBTQAI+ individuals is a pertinent one, particularly in Africa, where social and political rights are still a topic of debate. For many years, people identifying as members of the LGBTQAI+ community have been treated in inhumane ways such as being called disgusting, terrible and threats toward society.

Social and political rights form part of the building blocks of human rights, and these universal human rights, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, ensure that everyone is treated fairly, respected, and not subjected to torture or inhumane treatment based on their religious beliefs, gender, and sexual identities amongst other things. Despite the existence of universal human rights, people identifying as members of the LGBTQAI+ community continue to face discrimination and violence, particularly in societies that prioritise heterosexual men.

Like South Africa, Uganda is still highly patriarchal, and these societies prioritise heterosexual men and discriminate against women and men who do not identify as heterosexual, which in turn affect and inform the realities and experiences of those people.

In Uganda, laws criminalising homosexuality and members of the LGBTQAI+ community have been in place since the colonial period, perpetuating conflict through violence. These discourses have been internalised, passed on and practised for many generations and the residual repercussions still affect the lives of many queer people.

As a result, there has been a perpetual management of social relations and abuse of power which also shapes complex relationships between people of different genders, identities, and sexualities. In societies that are still under the shadow of colonial influences, values and norms are deeply rooted in patriarchy, which places heterosexual men in a superior position and privileges them to exercise patriarchal power and discriminate against anyone who is not heterosexual or male.

Hence, Museveni’s comments and impositions of God creating men and women and other people being in violation of the religious laws and beliefs in the country.

Recently, Uganda’s president has been accused of being homophobic and lashing out against the critiques of a new bill criminalising members of the LGBTQA+ community. This bill violates human rights to dignity and respect, creating unsafe spaces for LGBTQAI+ individuals in Uganda. In his words he said that homosexuals are “disgusting” and what they are doing is “terrible”.

Academics and African queer studies experts have condemned the use of public homophobic comments, particularly from African leaders, as it is counter-productive towards the collective sensitisation of societies and the understanding of people with different sexual preferences. Ultimately, they fear that it may fuel violence, and perpetuate misunderstandings and other misguided conceptions about the LGBTQA+ community.

In line with this reasoning, and in Uganda in particular, spaces have become entirely unsafe for LGBTQA+ people as their family members, community members and law enforcement are obligated to report them, even for “suspected homophobia”.

The safety to be oneself and love whom one chooses is a fundamental human right, yet for many in Uganda’s LGBTQA+ community, it is a right under threat. The passing of the bill, deemed unfair and in violation of dignity and respect, has sparked concern among activists, academics, and allies in Southern Africa.

Similarly, it has also brought into call the significance of mobilising and lobbying to encourage the South African government to intervene. Questions of how other African societies can stand in solidarity with Uganda’s LGBTQA+ community and encourage government intervention has emerged, with lobbying efforts by organisations such as Access-Chapter 2 NPC calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa to demonstrate political will by engaging his counterparts to push against Museveni and the bill being passed.

The Collective has also announced in a public statement that the South African government has been acting as bystanders rather than defending civil society, unlike political parties such as the EFF who have publicly condemned the passing of the bill as “an irrational rhetoric which collates sexual crimes and queer identity”.

With a comprehensive Constitutional framework protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ in South Africa, many people are also debating on what approaches and strategies our government can use, together with the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights, in defending what is described as “an already volatile environment for LGBTQ+ people” in that country.

Due to perceived violence and other eminent issues around queers in recent years, I have been conducting a study on the constructions of identity in the South African context. I place a specific emphasis on the significance of African Queer studies and the African queer discourse as knowledge systems that can aid in educating and empowering societies about issues in and of the LGBTQAI+ in Africa.

These studies can exist within and across disciplines, and they consider and grapple with issues of biology, social conditioning, geography, and other intersectional factors that have shaped African societies’ norms and value systems under colonial powers. The discriminations during colonialism shunned and looked down on African spirituality, traditional African family structures and dynamics, and the various cultural and traditional practices.

Thus, the aim is to illuminate and contribute to the body of knowledge on the existence of different genders and sexual orientations in our history, and to hopefully help create a safe future social landscape where everyone’s’ human rights are prioritised, respected, and people are treated with dignity regardless of religious, cultural, and traditional beliefs, amongst many, and their sexual orientation.

In light of what is currently taking place in Uganda, and the questions this is raising in the context of South Africa, such theorisation is essential to create a safe social landscape where human rights are prioritised, respected, and everyone treated with dignity regardless of their beliefs and sexual orientation. The Access-Chapter 2 march in solidarity with Uganda’s LGBTQA+ community on March 31, 2023, is an opportunity for everyone to participate in an act of rebellion and an attempt to redefine societal norms and power structures against human rights violations.

We can only imagine and hope that the mobilisations by everyone involved and on all spheres of society will help shift the stance of the South African and other governments in the continent to take the necessary measures to help liberate the LGBTQA+ community that continues to be oppressed and discriminated against in Uganda.

Kgaladi Petunia Makhafola is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, with a masters degree in Sociology (cum laude) from the same university. She is an emerging academic with research interests in gender, violence, sexuality, education, advocacy, and Pan-Africanism, and has participated in various women movements that advocate against gender-based-violence