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Report details anti-LGBTQ discrimination, violence in Kenya refugee camp

March 15 attack left gay man dead

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Ugandan refugees, gay news, Washington Blade
The Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (Photo by the E.U. Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations via Flickr)

KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya — A new report released on Wednesday indicates nearly all of the LGBTQ people who live in a Kenya refugee camp have experienced discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and Rainbow Railroad in May 2021 surveyed 58 LGBTQ asylum seekers who live at the Kakuma refugee camp and the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement that opened in 2016 to help alleviate overcrowding at Kakuma. The groups also interviewed 18 “key informants.”

More than 90 percent of the LGBTQ asylum seekers who spoke with ORAM and Rainbow Railroad said they have been “verbally assaulted.”

Eighty-three percent of them indicated they suffered “physical violence,” with 26 percent of them reporting sexual assault. All of the transgender respondents “reported having experienced physical assault,” with 67 percent of them “reporting sexual assault.”

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they had been “denied police assistance due to their sexual identity.” Nearly half of the respondents told ORAM and Rainbow Railroad they had to be “relocated from their allocated shelters to alternative accommodation due to the constant abuses directed at them by neighbors.”

Kakuma, which is located in northwest Kenya near the country’s border with Uganda and South Sudan, is one of two refugee camps the U.N. Refugee Agency operates in the East African nation. The other, Dadaab, is located near Kenya’s border with Somalia.

The report notes upwards of 160,000 refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda were living in Kakuma as of January.

Those who responded to the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey are from Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ethiopia and all of them have asked for asylum in Kenya. Ninety-four percent of them live in Kakuma, while the remaining six percent live in Kalobeyei.

The report also estimates there are 350 LGBTQ asylum seekers in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. UNHCR in 2020 created Block 13 in Kakuma that is specifically for LGBTQ refugees.

Gay man died after Block 13 attack

Two gay men suffered second-degree burns during an attack on Block 13 on March 15. One of the men died a few weeks later at a hospital in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

Forty-one of the Block 13 residents who participated in the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey said that “relocation to a safer place as a priority.” The report also notes some respondents who live outside Block 13 “said that the activism in Block 13 was affecting the overall relationship between LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and service providers in the camp.”

“They expressed concern with some activities conducted as part of their activism,” reads the report. “For example, they alleged that some activists were conducting staged attacks on individuals and false claims of violence to attract media attention as part of their advocacy.”

The report notes “allegations of activity from activists in Block 13 have not been confirmed.” Some of the “key informants” who ORAM and Rainbow Railroad interviewed for their report, however, “observed that LGBTQI+ activists from different countries have been supporting the advocacy in Block 13 without considering the local context and potential negative or unintended consequences.”

“They allege that the advocacy has been antagonizing LGBTQI+ members with other refugees in the camp and service providers,” reads the report. “For example, some of the LGBTQI+ asylum seekers were reported to have deserted their allocated shelters, moved to Block 13 and were persistently demanding new shelters.”

An attack at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya on March 15, 2021, left two gay refugees with second-degree burns. One of these men later died. (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Kagarura)

UNHCR in a statement after the March 15 attack noted Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. The ORAM and Rainbow Railroad report acknowledges both points.

“Asylum seekers and refugees in Kenya are not immune to pervasive anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes in the community,” it reads. “As the number of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees increases rapidly, it is important to understand their unique protection needs and plan for safe and dignified service delivery to meet those needs.”

The report notes more than 70 percent of respondents have gone to Kakuma’s main hospital the International Rescue Committee operates in order to receive HIV/AIDS-related services. More than 85 percent of respondents said they “preferred to seek all other health services beyond HIV and AIDS services at the main hospital, since the facility was friendly and provided a stigma-free environment for the LGBTQI+ community in the camp.”

“Respondents reported traveling long distances in order to visit the main hospital,” reads the report.

The report notes limited access to cardiologists and other specialists at the eight health facilities in the camp that UNHCR partner organizations operates. Roughly a third of respondents also said they have “been stigmatized in some of the health clinics.”

“This included being referred to as shoga (a derogatory Kiswahili term used to refer to homosexuality) either by staff members or other refugees in the waiting room while waiting to see a provider, or some providers just directing them to the main hospital with snide remarks about how they do not entertain LGBTQI+ persons in their facility,” reads the report.

The African Human Rights Coalition, the Refugee Coalition of East Africa and Upper Rift Minorities are among the other groups that work with the camp’s LGBTQ residents.

The report notes only a third of respondents “were actively engaged in economic activity at the time of the study, a majority depended on the food rations distributed in the camp.” It also contains 10 recommendations, which are below, to improve conditions for LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

1) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya must fast-track refugee status determination of LGBTQ asylum seekers with further support from UNHCR and civil society organizations.

2) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya and UNHCR must create more responsive and sensitive protection services for LGBTQ refugees in Kenya.

3) Civil society organizations and their supporters should provide livelihood support and other support to meet the immediate needs of LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

4) Governments of resettlement countries must resume and fast track resettlement of LGBTQ refugees from Kenya.

5) UNHCR and civil society organizations must continue to build skills development programs for employability.

6) LGBTQ civil society organizations should work more closely with refugee-led organizations and collectives to build self-protection services.

7) Donor communities should participate in more long-term development programming for LGBTQI+ refugees in Kenya.

8) LGBTQ civil society organizations providing support to refugees in Kenya must coordinate more closely.

9) LGBTQ civil society organizations and refugee-led organizations should continue to advocate for more inclusive human rights in Kenya.

10) Civil society must continue the push for LGBTQ human rights globally, including decriminalization of same sex intimacy.

“This much-needed report underscores the challenges, dangers and complexities of life that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face in Kakuma refugee camp,” said ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth in a press release that announced the report’s release. “The refugees themselves have spoken and they want to be heard. UNHCR, governments and civil society organizations must work together to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of this community while also addressing the longer term, durable solutions we recommend in the report.”

Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell added refugee camps cannot “become permanent solutions to crises of forced displacement.”

“The findings of this report confirm a key goal of Rainbow Railroad—to fast track resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees,” he said. “Rainbow Railroad and civil society partners are ready to provide support to LGBTQI+ persons at risk and assist in further resettlement. Ultimately, we need the UNHCR, the government of Kenya and governments of countries that are destinations for refugees to step up an ensure that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the camp are resettled in safer countries.”

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Pan Africa ILGA: Investigate anti-LGBTQ, anti-intersex murders

“The inhumane violations and slaughter of LGBTIQ+ persons should prompt thorough investigations, aimed at prosecuting those responsible”

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Pan Africa ILGA Executive Director Nate Brown

JOHANNESBURG, Guateng, South Africa – Pan Africa ILGA once again urged authorities across the continent to investigate the murders of LGBTQ and intersex people and to work to reduce violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The organization — which comprises 268 groups that work for LGBTQ and intersex rights across Africa — in a report it issued in July noted a number of high profile murders that have taken place this year. They include Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old Kenyan woman who was murdered in April, Pinky Shongwe, a 32-year-old South African who was stabbed to death in March, and Obisike Donald Ibe, a 31-year-old doctor in Nigeria who was slain in January.

Lumumba, a lesbian who was reportedly targeted because of her sexual orientation, was raped before her murder. A South African court in April sentenced two men to life in prison for raping a 19-year-old lesbian woman in 2020

“LGBTIQ+ persons deserve to thrive without fear of being persecuted,” said Pan Africa ILGA Executive Director Nate Brown. “The recent murder of Sheila in Kenya reflects the realities of the LGBTIQ+ community in Africa. It bears mentioning that unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. They are part of a pattern of attacks, violence and murders against LGBTIQ+ persons across the continent.” 

Pan Africa ILGA board co-chairs Star Rugori and Barbra Wangere at the same time said the organization is in the process of developing a crisis reporting center that will document human rights violations against LGBTQ and intersex people in Africa and advocate for increased protections and respect for them.

“The inhumane violations and slaughter of LGBTIQ+ persons should prompt thorough investigations, aimed at prosecuting those responsible,” said Rugori and Wangere in a joint statement. “Government needs to protect activists and the greater LGBTIQ+ community and to call a halt to the impunity that links this chain of vicious murders. LGBTIQ+ lives matter and should be protected at all costs just like the rest of our African citizens.”

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of the Catholic Diocese of Mthatha in South Africa during an interview with the Catholic Information Service for Africa said people who identify as LGBTQ or intersex should be treated with dignity.

“The most we can do, for now, is to grapple with it, to try and understand, and to see how to continue treating these people with the dignity that they have because, despite their sexual orientation, they are still children of God, they have the same dignity,” said Sipuka. “I have known people, credible people, authentic people who are gay or lesbian, very intelligent, very integral people, very committed people, very loving people, and so it is difficult to say that there’s something wrong with this one, you know because some of them really are in terms of integrity full of admiration, the way they are as a person that is difficult for me to condemn them, and say that there is something wrong with them.”

Sipuka also touched the issue of marriage equality, which is usually a catalyst for homophobic statements.

“The process and teaching of the church so far is still that marriage is between a man and a woman, but on the other hand, it does not mean at all that we should despise or think of people who are gay and lesbian as any less than heterosexual people,” said Sipuka. 

I cannot say you can go ahead and get married because I don’t have the mandate to do that. I do things on the mandate of the church. I am open to hearing more on how pastorally to deal with this matter. I am also open for it to be discussed theologically. In the end, the teachings about the church are always about love even exactly everything that they touch is about love,” added Sipuka.

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Landmark Kenya intersex rights law takes effect

Activists praise Children Act 2022

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The Kenyan flag (Photo courtesy of Rarrarorro via Bigstock)

NAIROBI, Kenya — A new law that took effect late last month in Kenya has granted equal rights and recognition to intersex people 

Intersex people are now recognized as Kenya’s third gender with an ‘I’ gender marker in response to the Children Act 2022. Kenya is the first African country that has granted the intersex community this universal right.

The new law requires intersex children to be treated with dignity and have equal access to basic services like medical treatment and education, in addition to social protection services as a special need. It also requires the accomodation of intersex children in child protection centers and other facilities.

Courts are also required to consider the needs of intersex children who are on trial — including the calling of an expert witness — before they issue any ruling. The law further stipulates that anyone can be a foster parent without restrictions of gender, age or marital status.

It also protects intersex children from so-called sex normalization surgeries, and such procedures will only be done with a doctor’s recommendation. Those who violate the law will face at least three years in jail and a fine of at least $5,000.

“This is a great and major milestone globally for Kenya. We are now way ahead and can teach our neighbors and the whole globe good practices,” said Jedidah Wakonyo, a human rights lawyer and former chair of the Intersex Persons Society of Kenya

The long journey for recognition started dramatically in 2006 when some human rights organizations petitioned courts about a detainee who had been accused of a violent robbery.

Authorities perceived the suspect was a man after police strip-searched him before he entered prison.

This followed numerous court battles by intersex people who demanded the right to recognition as another gender in their birth certificates.

Being denied birth certificates from the discriminatiory law that only recognized male and female genders further limited their access to national identity cards, passports and other crucial documents and government services.      

The Births and Deaths Registration Act under the new law’s Section 7 (3) “shall take measures to ensure correct documentation and registration of intersex children at birth.”    

Intersex people commonly have a combination of male and female gonads (ovaries or testicles) or ambiguous genitalia. 

Wakonyo, who also chaired the Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee and was named the International Court of Justice’s 2020 jurist of the year, describes the law’s enactment as a historic moment because of its comprehensive definition of an intersex person.

It defines an intersex child as “a child with a congenital condition in which the biological sex characteristics cannot be exclusively categorized in the common binary of female or male due to inherent and mixed anatomical, hormonal, gonadal or chromosomal patterns which could be apparent before, at birth, in childhood, puberty or adulthood.”

Kenyan law considers anyone under 17 to be a child.

“Defining an intersex from a child’s perspective while taking care of many aspects and not just the physical notion of being intersex is the best practice because in future they don’t find themselves in the state of gender confusion between males and females like the current situation,” stated Wakonyo. 

This provision essentially protects intersex persons from being deprived of their constitutional rights of gender recognition under the country’s Bill of Rights.

Veronica Mwangi, the deputy director at Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, that helped secure the law’s implementation, said it addresses issues for which the intersex community has been fighting for years.    

“It is very progressive and we are glad about the gains because it provides for the existence of the intersex which all state actors have to accept. Full implementation is what we now need to focus on,” she said.

The law took effect roughly five years after Kenya became the first African nation and the second country in the world after Australia to count intersex people in a Census. The 2019 survey showed 1,524 Kenyans were intersex.

Intersex rights groups had initially petitioned the courts for a total ban of surgeries on intersex children unless they were a medical emergency.

Wakonyo backs the provision for a doctor’s approval on grounds that the surgeries will only be done “in the best interest of the intersex child, informed consent of the parents and the participation of the child depending on the age.” Wakonyo and other activists say the relaxation of the requirements for adopting intersex children not only seeks to end the problem of neglect and abandonment but also the stigma that has left some to die by suicide.

The law safeguards adoptive parents’ rights and parental responsibility and intersex children from child labor, online expuse and other forms of exploitation.

“Intersex children who are just like other children will no longer be killed at birth because of their gender ambiguity,” said Wakonyo.   

Despite the law’s huge benefits for the intersex community, Wakonyo notes it is a “very significant foundation” for the group because gender-specific accommodations in social gatherings and facilities remain needed.

Another historic win for intersex Kenyans this year was the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights’ decision to hire an intersex commissioner.

“Dr. Dennis Wamalwa applied as an intersex (person), interviewed as an intersex (person), and the shortlist comprised male, female, and ‘I’ gender for intersex. He emerged (at the) top and his intersex friends and associates came to witness his swearing,” stated Wakonyo, who also served as a Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights commissioner.

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Ugandan government forces advocacy group to shut down

Sexual Minorities Uganda says NGO Bureau ‘halted’ operations

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Sexual Minorities Uganda was forced to cease operations this week. (Bigstock photo)

KAMPALA, Uganda — An LGBTQ+ and intersex rights group in Uganda says the country’s government forced it to shutdown on Wednesday.

Sexual Minorities Uganda in a press release said Uganda’s National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations, which oversees NGOs in the country, on Wednesday “halted” its operations “for non-registration with the NGO Bureau.”

The press release notes current Sexual Minorities Uganda Executive Director Frank Mugisha is among those who submitted an application with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau in 2012 “for the reservation of the name of the proposed company,” which was Sexual Minorities Uganda. 

David Kato, who was Sexual Minorities Uganda’s advocacy officer, was murdered in his home outside of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, on Jan. 26, 2011. A Ugandan tabloid a few months earlier published Kato’s name and picture as part of an article that called for the execution of LGBTQ and intersex people. 

The Uganda Registration Services Bureau on Feb. 16, 2016, rejected Sexual Minorities Uganda’s application based on grounds that it was “undesirable and un-registrable” because it sought “to advocate for the rights and wellbeing of lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons, which persons are engaged in activities labeled criminal acts under Sec. 145 of the Penal Code Act.” 

Uganda is among the dozens of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which imposed a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The law was known as the “Kill the Gays” bill because it previously contained a death penalty provision.

The U.S. subsequently cut aid to Uganda and imposed a travel ban against officials who carried out human rights abuses. Uganda’s Constitutional Court later struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality.

The Uganda Registration Services Bureau’s decision to reject Sexual Minorities Uganda’s registration application was upheld. Ugandan lawmakers in 2019 passed the Sexual Offenses Bill 2019, which further criminalizes homosexuality in the country.

“The refusal to legalize SMUG’s operations that seek to protect LGBTQ people who continue to face major discrimination in Uganda, actively encouraged by political and religious leaders was a clear indicator that the government of Uganda and its agencies are adamant and treat Ugandan gender and sexual minorities as second-class citizens,” said Sexual Minorities Uganda in their press release. “These further compromises efforts to demand for better health services and escalates the already volatile environment for the LGBTQ community.”

Mugisha described the decision as “a clear witch-hunt rooted in systematic homophobia that is fueled by anti-gay and anti-gender movements that have infiltrated public offices aiming to influence legislation to erase the LGBTQ community.” 

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, which honored Mugisha in 2011, on Friday said it is “outraged by the utterly discriminatory and arbitrary decision of the NGO Bureau in Uganda to shutdown SMUG operations.”

“This endangers the lives and rights of LGBTQ+ (people) in Uganda and shows the extent homophobia has permeated Ugandan authorities,” said Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in a tweet.

The Council for Global Equality, OutRight Action International and Pan Africa ILGA are among the other organizations that sharply criticized the Ugandan government.

“Very disturbing news out of Uganda,” tweeted Pan Africa ILGA. “SMUG, one of the most influential LGBTIQ+ focused networks based in Uganda, has been suspended.”

U.S. Mission Uganda on Saturday tweeted a link to President Joe Biden’s 2021 memorandum that committed the U.S. to promote LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of American foreign policy.

“We reiterate our support for those committed to ensuring all people are treated with respect and dignity and able to live without fear no matter who they are or whom they love,” tweeted U.S. Mission Uganda.

Sexual Minorities Uganda, for its part, remained defiant.

“We shall be back,” it tweeted.

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