In the African continent, there has been a very mixed record of achievement on human rights and social justice for vulnerable and key populations, including LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) persons. It is correct to assert that the broad orientation of the legal frameworks in Africa regarding the rights of LGBTI persons can be described as hostile and anti-human rights. 

It is a sad reality that in Africa, the lives of LGBTI persons, vulnerable groups and key populations remain both compromised and threatened in environments where they are criminalised and face ongoing stigma, discrimination, physical and sexual violence, victimisation, abuse and denial of their rights, including their right to health. Moreover, social and economic inequality across the region places many other individuals and groups at risk of HIV, including women and girls, young people, people with disabilities, migrants, and mobile populations.

In recent years, some African countries have moved to adopt punitive laws regarding homosexuality and same sex-relationships. Aside from the legal aspects of these developments, these countries have issued populist and incorrect messages that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and that this is a ‘western concept’. Yet homosexuality exists in every society across the world, and Africa is not an exception. In fact, Africans embrace that reality. The issue, I believe, is that Africans have challenges in dealing with the manifestation of homosexuality. All that this uninformed stance has achieved is the unwarranted violation of the rights of LGBTI persons. This includes the outright denial of basic rights and dignity for LGBTI persons, including their access to HIV and health services. There is increasing evidence that lesbians, and transgender men and women are being targeted with sexual violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The serious nature of this reality was reflected in Resolution 275, passed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in April 2014. The Resolution draws attention to the deplorable situation across the continent of ongoing violence and human rights abuses against individuals based on real or perceived sexual orientation. State-sanctioned persecution is specifically condemned. Despite this groundbreaking resolution, the human rights of LGBTI persons across the African continent continue to be violated and undermined by repressive legal frameworks, hate speech and violence. Out of the 55 countries in Africa, 34 criminalise same-sex relationships. In many cases these laws were introduced under the British Empire, making this a uniquely Commonwealth problem.

In March 2015, under the leadership of the UNAIDS Regional office in Johannesburg, a diverse regional group of experts and advocates on HIV, human rights and social justice, including justices, lawyers, doctors, LGBTI persons and their networks, academics, faith-based organisations and policymakers, convened in South Africa, to form the African Think-Tank on Health and Social Justice. Our bold purpose is to function as a dynamic and engaged platform for strategic thinking, leadership and collaboration to support, expand and accelerate action on human rights and social justice for LGBTI persons, vulnerable groups and key populations across the African continent.

The African Think-Tank on Health and Social Justice is an innovative platform, the first of its kind, with a clear objective to address the institutionalised stigma and discrimination against LGBTI persons as well as the notion that homosexuality is ‘un-African’. The fact that the think- tank is composed by Africans means it is in a unique position to lead the debate regarding sexual orientation and gender identity in the continent. Our perspective comes not only from a human rights and social justice angle, but also through African contextual realities and lenses.

As such, there is an urgent need not only to debunk the myth that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, but also to engage in transformational dialogue with all stakeholders. Our aim is to assert the universality of human rights and the centrality of the dignity of all human beings without exception. African societies already subscribe to this notion through the philosophy of Ubuntu, at the heart of which is the idea that all persons are equally dignified.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting provides an important platform for African advocates to appeal to their governments for the right to equality for LGBTI people. Already important progress has been made on the African continent. Botswana and Malawi are slowly proceeding with removing their sodomy laws, while Mozambique and Seychelles have recently decriminalised homosexuality. The courts in other African Commonwealth member countries, particularly in Kenya, Malawi, and Botswana, have been at the forefront of affecting the promise of equality of all people entrenched in these countries’ constitutions.

Part of my work at The African Think-Tank on Health and Social Justice is to use transformative roundtable dialogues, information sharing and best practices, and to work with key stakeholders and communities to bring down the walls of stigma, discrimination and prejudice. Through structured dialogues with key actors, it is possible to intercept and avert actions that could fuel further homophobia and violence against LGBTI persons.

There’s a huge amount of work left to do, but slowly the walls of prejudice against the LGBTI community are crumbling.

There’s a huge amount of work left to do, but slowly the walls of prejudice against the LGBTI community are crumbling. There is significant momentum and a critical mass emerging for resolving human rights and social justice challenges for LGBTI persons and other key populations across the African continent, led by trailblazing Africans themselves. What we now need is to leverage the positive changes alluded to above, and the opportunities provided by platforms such as the African Think-Tank and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It’s critical that we act on these opportunities to enhance collective impact regarding human rights and social justice for all in Africa.

I’m heartened by the progress made by some African governments on advancing equality for all in their countries. Through the positive presence of African LGBTI civil society leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, we can forward the vision of Africa that is free from discrimination and homophobia. I am confident we can keep this momentum going.