Chalwe Charles Mwansa on LGBT activism in Zambia

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Earlier this year, we heard about the situation facing LGBT citizens in Zambia. Could you give us a brief update of the situation on the ground? 

While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in some sections of the world have progressed in recent years, equality remains elusive in other parts of the world, such as Zambia. On the 2nd July, 2014, Philip Mubiana and James Mwape, both in their early twenties, were acquitted by the magistrate court from charges of having sexual relations “against the order of nature”. They had been held since May 2013, and faced up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Zambia’s tough anti-homosexuality laws date back to the British colonial era and public opinion remains strongly against sexual minorities. This case is one of the many ways that LGBT men and women in Zambia experience homophobic discrimination and persecution at the hands of both state and non- state actors. However, unlike this case, much of this abuse does not reach the country’s media.

What are the repercussions facing those who advocate for the rights of sexual minorities?

Many activists who courageously attempt to protect people’s rights are threatened with the de-registration of their organisation or accused of being in breach of the law. For example, gay rights activist, Paul Kasonkomona, was arrested after defending same-sex relations on the television. The government charged him with “inciting the public to take part in indecent activities“. This holds for LGBT activists and those fighting for other rights, such as press freedom, right of assembly, and – if they are in the opposition – the right to actively participate in political affairs. In addition, activists who advocate for LGBT rights, stressing people’s common humanity, often find it more difficult to garner public support, and risk their lives facing state-sponsored homophobia.

Have they had much success in their advocacy?

The social and legal campaigns in Zambia have had some success. Paul Kasonkomona, for example, was later acquitted of the charges against him in court. As he argued, this was a ‘landmark judgement’ for the protection of people’s rights in Zambia.

When Paul was arrested, he was speaking out about the need to protect gay rights in order for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country to be addressed. Currently there is a lack of health programs that cater for sexual minorities. In particular, there is an urgent need to include men who have same-sex relationships in the country’s National Aids Strategic Framework. In order to help this shift, there has been a move to collect baseline data on HIV/AIDS prevalence amongst men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW). To this end, a study was conducted in December 2012, which marks a step in the right direction, and it is encouraging that sections of civil society have supported the move.

However, the legal framework of prejudice continues. As do claims that same-sex relationships are ‘unAfrican’. The argument of cultural relativism to justify homophobia, advanced by ‘men of the cloth’, conceited academics and unprincipled politicians, is unacceptable. There is much work still to be done. Every human deserves the dignity. Homophobic words and deeds violate our humanity. Actions driven by stigma and prejudice towards sexual minorities cause immense suffering, not just for the people who are persecuted, but also for their family and friends.

What do you think is the best way to push for a more tolerant discussion of LGBT rights in Zambia?

The paramount issue on the table, with regard to LGBT rights, is how we create an African-centered dialogue that tackles the social and political issues that currently drives homophobia across the continent.

These discussions must also sit within a broader dialogue that is centered on a human rights approach, and focuses on the protection and promotion of self-determination in all areas of life, without discrimination on the basis of gender, age, etc. Whilst this dialogue is still taking root, we also need to ensure people’s protection from torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment.

Recently, you have been studying as a fellow in the US: can you tell us briefly about the fellowship and how it will affect your role as an activist?

I was selected from amongst the 1,700 applicants from Zambia who had applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The fellowship was highly competitive, aiming to attract Africa’s future leaders. In total, five hundred fellows have been placed in over twenty US universities for a period of two months. I was fortunate, together with 24 other fascinating and dynamic leaders, to attend the University of California (Berkeley), to study Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

We have learned a lot, exploring governance and analysing how societies deal with the challenges and policy problems that they face, often by combining the resources of government, the private sector and the community. I am currently interning at the International Gay Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), where I am gaining practical experience that is challenging my ideas and developing my professional skills, to enable me to develop innovative solutions to some of the challenges we face back home in Zambia, regarding the protection of LGBT rights.

Thanks for talking to us today. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Advanced societies should not be measured by the size of their armies, their population or the resources they possess. Rather, their full strength should be measured by how they protect the weak in society, and societal minorities. Even if people have issues with same-sex relationships, they should show respect for people of a different sexual orientation. Human life is sacred and every individual deserves to be treated as a moral and rational being, who is deserving of dignity. The law must enable and protect that dignity. This is what the human rights perspective teaches us.

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