It's a tough life for Sierra Leone's gay community

Shanelle Moffett and Tenisha Watkins, a lesbian couple from Chicago, USA, kiss at their civil union ceremony on June 2, 2011. Such unions are deeply frowned upon in much of Africa, including in Sierra Leone, where a new report documents rampant discrimination. FILE 

The first report on the life of Sierra Leone's gays and lesbians has revealed a deep-seated culture of discrimination and violence, described by the US State Department as "unfortunate".

An eight-month study documented the experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in four major cities – Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and Makeni.

It details graphically how they have been stripped of their basic human rights by systematically being denied basic services as punishment for their sexual orientation.

The perpetrators include both family members and public officials.
The report, Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, focuses on access to health care and violence against LGBTI people.

The study was conducted between 2012 and 2013, by two leading local LGBTI organisations, Pride Equality and Dignity Association, with support from the Washington-based Global Rights.

Out of 80 respondents, 99 per cent had experienced at least one form of harassment and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and transgender women were found to be more susceptible to harassment or being beaten up.

Besides been forced to leave home, victims are also kicked out of rented properties when their sexual orientation and gender orientation were exposed.

Fuels homophobia

The silence of Sierra Leone`s constitution on LGBTI issues and occasional inciting statements by political leaders serve as fuel for growing homophobia, the report adds.

It adds that arbitrary arrest and detention by the police make police stations no-go-areas for victims in the face of rampant physical attacks.

"Because of frequent attacks, LGBTI people prefer living in the closet," said George Reginald Freeman, executive director of Pride Equality and co-author of the report.

His organisation documented cases of physical assault, which often take the form of extortion and corrective rape, among others.

The report also shows an alarming trend in HIV/Aids infection particularly among gays, mainly attributed to reluctance of medical professionals to treat homosexuals.
Twenty-eight per cent of the respondents complained of been denied access to treatment, while 33 per cent stayed away from health facilities for fear of discrimination and sought services with traditional healers.

"Traditional healers are approached because they ask few questions and do not turn down patients," said Mamadou Jalloh, national coordinator of Dignity Association.

Medications prescribed by traditional healers, he added, put LGBTI people`s lives at risk.

Visible absence

The report "provides, unfortunately, a sobering and vivid account of experiences that shows that a lot needs to be done in Sierra Leone in terms of human rights,” said Paula Schriefer, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, US Department of State.

The visible absence of invited government officials at the ceremony on Thursday served as a strong reminder of the government`s attitude towards the issue.

The government has the primary responsibility to ensure the protection of the rights of its citizens and “the US stands ready to help Sierra Leone meets its international obligation..," Mrs Schriefer said, adding that as a member of the UN Human Council, the West African nation was obliged to ensure that it observes all its obligations.

With no clear legislation against same sex marriage, Sierra Leonean officials have constantly cited provisions of an 1861 Act on "buggery" and "attempted buggery" to "intimidate" LGBTI people.

"While prosecutions under these provisions are rare to non-existent, the continuation of this prohibition on the books legitimises harassment, discrimination, violence, stigma, and marginalisation of individuals and communities," notes the report.

Monthly protest

When US and UK leaders last year called for better treatment of homosexuals, Sierra Leone was among countries from where the loudest reactions emanated.

It prompted a monthly protest by a Muslim group, and reports indicated heightened anti-gay preaching in churches.

Homosexuality is generally a taboo here, although gay rights activists claim the practice is more rampant than it is thought to be.

The community is estimated to be at least 500 people.

The continued opposition from some, including the state, is regrettable, said Raymond Katta of the National Human Rights Commission.

But, he warned, that should not discourage campaigners against homophobia as it would take more awareness raising and dialogue to change perceptions.

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