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How new anti-LGBTQ+ bills in Africa expand crackdown on rights

Activists warn new bills modelled on draconian Ugandan law will expand crackdown on rights in Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere

DESPITE the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in Mauritius in 2023, rights groups warn that new laws being considered in several African countries risk eroding LGBTQ+ rights by creating new offences and targeting new groups.   

Many of the new bills resemble Uganda’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was signed into law last May and which includes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”.

Sexual minorities in the east African nation say they have faced a wave of abuse since then, with a prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist stabbed in an attack in January.

In a January report, Amnesty International described a “barrage of discriminatory laws stoking hate against LGBTI persons” in some African countries.

Here’s what you need to know.

How do new laws and bills differ from existing laws?

Same-sex relations are still illegal in more than 30 African countries but activists fear that proposed new laws in countries including Kenya and Ghana will expand the scope of existing legislation by redefining what can be deemed criminal.

Uganda is a case in point. When the Anti-Homosexuality Act was enacted, same-sex sexual relations were already illegal under a British colonial-era statute. 

Colonial-era laws tend to be narrow in scope, usually referring to the act of sex itself, as seen in interdictions on sodomy or acts described as being “against the order of nature”.

Under the new law, penalties are harsher with the death penalty recommended for “serial offenders” and transmission of a terminal illness, such as HIV/AIDS, through gay sex.

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The legislation also stipulates a 20-year sentence for “promoting” homosexuality, which includes activities such as publishing material deemed supportive, providing financial support or leasing property for “encouraging homosexuality”.

It also introduced a “duty to report” suspected homosexual acts to the police. 

“Now we’re seeing how laws are coming with fresh provisions, expanding on (colonial-era laws) to criminalise even identifying as LGBTQ+,” said Lucas Ramón Mendos, a Madrid-based lawyer and research manager for ILGA World, a rights group.

In Kenya, opposition lawmaker Peter Kaluma has put forward the Family Protection Bill, which mirrors many aspects of the Ugandan law and would notably punish gay sex with prison or even death in some cases.

Gay sex is already illegal in Kenya but its colonial-era law is rarely enforced and Kenya has long been seen as a relative haven for LGBTQ+ people in a hostile region.

The new bill is “cut from the same cloth” as the Ugandan legislation, said Kevin Muiruri, a Nairobi-based lawyer.

He noted that the bill proposed limiting some constitutional rights, such as freedom of assembly, privacy, and access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.

This could effectively make LGBTQ+ demonstrations and gatherings like Pride celebrations illegal.

In Ghana, an anti-LGBTQ+ bill supported by most lawmakers is moving through parliament and if passed will further criminalise same-sex relations.

Sex between men is already punishable by up to three years in jail, but the new bill will introduce punishment for even identifying as LGBTQ+.

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The Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values bill would also criminalise being transgender and include jail sentences of up to 10 years for advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

Publishing content considered pro-LGBTQ+ or that challenges traditional binary gender identities could also lead to prosecution.

After Uganda’s law was passed, some lawmakers in Tanzania and South Sudan said they too intended to propose similar anti-LGBTQ+ legal measures.

Uganda police officers question a member of Uganda's LGBT community during their pride parade
Uganda police officers questioned a member of Uganda’s LGBT community during their pride parade in Entebbe near the capital Kampala before police asked LGBT members to abandon their gathering on September 24, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena

What is behind the push for harsher anti-LGBTQ+ laws?

In its January report, Amnesty said legal systems were increasingly weaponised in 12 African countries in 2023 to systematically target and discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals.

“This includes instances where laws were egregiously employed to persecute and marginalise members of the LGBTI community, highlighting a distressing trend of legal mechanisms being used as instruments of oppression,” it said.

Some politicians portray their opposition to gay rights as an effort to protect the “family and social values of the African people, especially in Kenya“, said Muiruri.    

Despite evidence from historians that sexual and gender diversity existed before the colonial era, the narrative of preserving African values against encroaching Western values has proven to be an effective political tool, said Mendos.

“A combination of politicians, religious leaders and the media – and even more so now with social media and fake news being disseminated very easily – creates the perfect storm for prejudice to flourish,” he said.

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Gay rights campaigners also cite the influence of foreign anti-LGBTQ religious groups, notably in Uganda.

This story is part of a series supported by HIVOS’s Free To Be Me programme.