An extreme new anti-gay law has just been passed in Uganda that includes life sentences for gay sex – for both men and women - and up to seven years in jail for any person or even director of an organisation deemed to be actively supporting gay rights.
At ActionAid we recognise the innate worth and equity of all people irrespective of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, HIV status, colour, class, ethnicity, disability, location and religion and we also recognise the value of diversity. These are core values that run through our organisation at all levels.
So what does anti-gay legislation mean for our work across Africa, where a gay rights debate is increasingly being played out?
We know that some, but not all countries in Africa have very weak constitutions that inadequately address discrimination. This is reflected in the absence of legally enforceable rights in many countries, which allows space for discrimination and the intimidation of minorities and which in turn perpetuates social exclusion and acts as a barrier to full participation in society.
Effectively, the denial of rights plus exclusion mutually reinforce each other and perpetuate poverty, stigma and discrimination.
Calls to withdraw from African countries
Over the years, there have been calls for ActionAid to pull out of a number of African countries because of human rights violations. Yet with the majority of our work taking place in Africa, this is a challenge for us.
As an organisation that places human rights at the centre of our work, we believe it is vitally important to raise our voice against gross violations of fundamental human rights, including gay rights, whenever we can.
This is one of the reasons why we work at the local, national and international level – including at the African Union – to open space for more progressive voices at different levels. And those progressive voices do exist.
It is also why we feel it would be unacceptable for us not to continue working in countries that have poor human rights records. We also know that this position is supported by many gay rights activists across Africa who recognise that the actions of a government should not stop non-governmental organisations and charities from providing what is often life-saving support, particularly when linked to a human rights based approach.
Supporting rights in Uganda and gay rights in South Africa
In Uganda we support the basic needs of very poor people who often have no say in the decisions that affect their lives; we aim to help the most excluded gain access to those government services to which they have a right, such as education, health and food, and in doing so put pressure on government to use their resources more effectively.
So we work at a practical level to improve people’s access to services whilst as part of the ‘Black Monday’ anti-corruption movement we lobby government and other decision-makers for changes to the policies and practices that affect their lives.
And in South Africa, with funding from a major organisation, we are working directly with young gay men and women to become activists capable of engaging with the struggles of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed) people in their own communities and of working collectively to bring their voice to broader national attention in order to increase their safety and protection and bring about improvements in their lives. Work that is much needed, as our 2009 report on the hate crime of ‘Corrective Rape’ shows.