Friday, October 22, 2010

Human Rights Are Not a Matter of Mix and Match

Following the recent calls from a senior member of the government for greater recognition of rights for homosexuals in Kenya, the former leader of Botswana, Festus Mogae, has argued against the introduction of laws that criminalize same sex relationships. He is also opposed to laws that criminalize sex work. Both of these moves could help reduce discrimination and persecution.

Mr Mogae was discussing these issues in relation to reducing HIV transmission. The combined contribution of men having sex with men, sex workers and their clients to HIV epidemics may be as high as 20%, perhaps even higher. Although both same sex relationships and sex work should be decriminalized for reasons independent of HIV transmission reduction, Mogae's frankness is a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the president of Zambia, Rupiah Banda, doesn't agree. Nor do a large number of current African leaders. But many people are afraid to even campaign or express an opinion about same sex relationships or sex work, especially if they are involved in such relationships or depend on sex work for their income. Whether Mogae is speaking for them or clearing the way for them to speak for themselves, the issues should no longer remain in the hands of extremists.

Despite the relatively small contribution that same sex relationships and sex work make to HIV epidemics, perhaps it doesn't matter why governments discuss the possibility of decriminalizing or avoiding criminalizing these activities. Perhaps the important thing is that the issues are discussed openly and fairly, with the hope that leaders will make decisions based on human rights principles, rather than on tabloid whim.

On the subject of tabloid whim, a Ugandan newspaper is calling for gay people to be hanged. The article has even named people it claims are gay. Uganda's government is not known for discussing homosexuality sensibly, or even for discussing it, and a lot of 'information' on homosexuality in the country is thought to have been disseminated using money from a US Christian church.

Such campaigns are always based on misinformation and hatred. Things associated with homosexuals are suspiciously like things associated with other monorities, such as albinos. Here in Tanzania, literature about albinism often has to explicitly point out that you will not become an albino by touching one, that they are not some kind of mysterious type of human. And there are numerous other myths that need to be dispelled, over and over again.

Homophobes like the public to think that gay people 'recruit' others, adults and children, and somehow make them gay. There are many myths and they are easy to propagate, especially as so many of them are familiar. Stigma that associates HIV transmission with 'unsafe' sexual behavior and some kind of vague 'immorality' also eases the propagation of prejudice. As a result people are persecuted, attacked and often killed.

The belief that Africans have some kind of unusual sexuality, or that they are more sexually active than non-Africans, also feeds the prejudice against same sex relationships. It's all part of a form of human behavior that results in people believing things that couldn't possibly be true solely because they confirm other things that also couldn't possibly be true.

This is dangerous behavior. What Uganda and other African countries need is legislation that prevents such myths being propagated in any way, especially in newspapers and other media. Lying may be common in the media, but the sort of fabrication that goes on in relation to same sex relationships and other sorts of behavior that are said to be 'wrong' has been responsible for many acts of violence. It is likely that there will be more violence.

Failure to recognise the human rights of one minority is a failure to recognise the human rights of all minorities. Because human rights are granted to all humans, arbitrarily selecting one minority and denying them their rights is a denial of the concept of human rights. So it is not only those who engage in same sex relationships who should be rejecting the current rash of homophobic nonsense we are being subjected to by many national media in Africa; everyone who cares about human rights should be concerned.


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