We are not victims, says Swaziland’s LGBT movement

by Peter Kenworthy, Africa Contact

“When we are talking about gay issues in Swaziland, people are uneasy. They know we are there but they deny it,” says Sibusiso Masango, Secretary General of Swazi Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organization, House of Our Pride (HOOP). “There is discrimination and we struggle when for instance applying for jobs.”

“In Swaziland, LGBT acts are seen as ungodly, unacceptable, and illegal and there are no laws against discrimination against LGBT,” a report published earlier in the year by HOOP’s partner organization, SWAPOL, said.

Swaziland’s Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, has called homosexuality “an abnormality and a sickness,” and LGBT people “who are open about their sexual orientation and relationships face censure and exclusion from the chiefdom-based patronage system, which could result in eviction from one’s home,” according to a 2012 report from the United States Department of State. In fact, the Times of Swaziland recently published a story of two young gay boys who were beaten and evicted because they were gay.

According to the SWAPOL report, 40% of respondents to a survey claimed that they felt like “outsiders where they live,” and less than 10% had discussed their sexual preferences with anyone beyond their immediate family. And the true numbers are probably even less encouraging as those who accepted to take part in the survey were mainly people integrated within Swaziland’s LGBT community.

But Sibusiso certainly doesn’t want to be seen as a victim. He wasn’t really interested in talking about the discrimination of LGBT persons in Swaziland when I interviewed him, as much as he wanted to speak about the role and successes of HOOP in challenging and eradicating this discrimination.

“We see that there are some changes and we do push. We see ourselves as a strong organization and we have tried to introduce the issue with the Minister of Health”, he says. “The ministry appreciated this and we are working together.”

HOOP was started in 2009 and has approximately 300 members. Amongst other things they have trained peer educators who have campaigned on the rights and provided support for LGBT people, started reporting on LGBT issues, distributed condoms and lubricants, and improved the access of LGBT people to health services.

But the clandestine nature of LGBT activities in Swaziland “may increase risk taking,” as they “feel they have no recourse to bring incidents of abuse to the authorities,” the SWAPOL report says whilst also pointing to the obvious fact that this is an additional health risk in a country where over a quarter of the population are HIV-positive.

This is why LGBT-organisations such as HOOP are so vital, both in attempting to stop the spread of HIV, in ensuring equal rights for LGBT people in undemocratic countries such as Swaziland, but also in ensuring day-to-day care and survival, medical and otherwise, for LGBT people who in many cases are discriminated against at by government-controlled institutions such as Swaziland’s underfunded medical clinics.

But a general lack of support stifles the work of HOOP and other LGBT organisations. Little support is given and almost no money is spent on programmes for LGBT people by national governments, amongst other things because there is a “lack of robust engagement by donors, implementers, and governments,” according to a recent report by Aids-research organization, amfAR.

So civil society needs to increasingly align itself with HOOP and organisations like them ensure that everyone in Swaziland and elsewhere are allowed their own identity and to fall in love with whomever they choose without being treated as outcasts.

Because intolerance in one area allows for intolerance to spread to other areas, so when human rights organisations and civil society in both the South and the North remain silent about human rights violations against LGBT people, they are in effect undermining their own cause.


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