At the end of a Senate briefing last week offering updates on science’s strides against HIV and AIDS worldwide, Dr. Chris Beyrer of John Hopkins University, and president-elect of the International AIDS Society offered a sobering counterpoint to the news of encouraging advances. “We’re not really there yet, for a group of people who are sometimes called ‘key populations,’ sometimes called ‘MARPs’ . . .” Noting that group includes gay men and other sexual minorities, Beyrer added that in recent years, movements to fight homophobic laws and neglect that interfere with access to health services have swept Africa in increasing numbers but that activism comes at a cost and requires great courage. Just three days earlier, Beyrer pointed out, one such activist, Cameroonian HIV treatment advocate and journalist Eric Ohena Lembembe had been found beaten and tortured to death in his home.
With seven people in prison, and 15 awaiting trial on homosexuality related criminal charges, Cameroon leads the world in reported arrests and prosecutions springing from antigay laws, according to the book From Wrongs to Gay Rights: Cruelty and change for LGBT people in an uncertain world to which Lembembe was a contributing author.
That doesn’t mean that Cameroon is necessarily the site of more antigay arrests and prosecutions; it is likely that many more occur in countries where records and reporting are rigidly restricted, the book’s lead author Colin E. Stewart points out. Reporting on persecutions of sexual minorities was one of the roles Lembembe played in confronting barriers standing between gay Cameroonians and HIV services.
Stewart, a retired longtime columnist and editor for the Orange County Register, launched 76 Crimes, a blog examining, as it says, “The human toll of 76 countries’ anti-gay laws, The struggle to repeal them,” a little more than a year ago, and was referred to Lembembe shortly after. In addition to his career as a professional journalist, Lembembe at the time was communications director for CAMFAIDS, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, a human rights advocacy and peer education organization.
“Knowing historical truths lets us avoid unhistorical lies . . .”
Lembembe’s first post for the blog appeared in May 2012. The post, What traditional African homosexuality learned from the West, an interview with anthropologist Patrick Awondo, who said “knowing historical truths lets us avoid unhistorical lies,” discussed the cultural history of same sex sexual relationships, and their acceptance, across the continent.
Over the year that followed, Lembembe wrote with increasing frequency for the blog, about the death from malaria of Cameroonian journalist and gay rights advocate Stephane Tchakam, about a growing number of gay rights advocacy efforts in Cameroon, about pressures on government, from both within and outside of the country to address persecution of gay Cameroonians. The latter post cited an October Human Rights Watch report that included among its findings, “Human rights violations targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Cameroon extend beyond the threat of criminal prosecution. Police abuse against LGBT people is rife, with documented cases of police beatings that rise to the level of torture.” The report had been submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Lembembe wrote. In the post, he cited one more impact of Cameroon’s homophobic environment: “Another argument for decriminalization of homosexuality in Cameroon is that the anti-homosexuality law obstructs the work of associations fighting against HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men.”
Responses to “MARPs”
With more than five percent of its people living with HIV, Cameroon’s epidemic is among the worst in West and Central Africa, according to the overview for the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief 2012 Country Operating Plan, “Pockets” of higher prevalence exist among specific populations, including, at 24 percent, a rate nearly five times that of the general population among men who have sex with men in Doula, the country’s largest city, and a rate nearly doubling that – 44 percent — in the nation’s capital, the overview says. Among the four focus points of PEPFAR’s “vision” for the next two years, according to the plan was “Prevention of sexual transmission activites focused on reducing HIV incidence in MARPS [Most At Risk Populations]” which the plan said include “CSW’s [Commercial Sex Workers] as well as MSM, Among the ways to achieve that, the plan says, would be signing agreements with “MARP-friendly” clinics. In a podcast discussing USAID’s support for Cameroon’s health system, the agency’s country coordinator cited “increasing access to high quality prevention services to Most-At-Risk-Populations (MARPs) and promoting behavior change.” That year, the civil society organization Cameroon National Association for Family Welfare received a $1.4 million grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, targeting prevention of mother to child transmission, care for people living with HIV and AIDS, and “prevention among most at risk populations in Cameroon,” Among the indicators listed for the grant’s performance: “number of condoms distributed to sex workers, men having sexual intercourse with men and lorry/truck drivers” and “number of MARP peer educators trained and who are active on the ground.”
“They shall surely be put to death”
In the meantime, Lembembe continued to document conditions on the ground.
“In Cameroon, the topic of homosexuality is no longer taboo,” he wrote, with some irony, on March 5, in a post headlined: In Cameroon anti-gay voices grow louder. He described a backlash to a Jan. 24 Amnesty International report which found that in addition to the arrests of people suspected of homosexuality, those who defended them were subjected to violence and harassment, while authorities did nothing to protect them. Lembembe also reported that prominent clergy — from the Catholic Church as well as the Christian Men’s Fellowship of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon — had launched anti-homosexuality campaigns in recent months. “They shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be on them,” the lawyer for the latter group is quoted as saying, alluding to a passage in Leviticus.
Lembembe, who became executive director of CAMFAIDS also had positive news to report. On March 8, in a post headlined Sharpening AIDS-fighting skills in Cameroon, he wrote about how the Cameroon National Association for Family Welfare was providing training on HIV prevention and treatment that focused on the challenges of sexual minorities.
But most of the news from Cameroon over the months that followed was bleak, with Lembembe reporting a series of arrests, convictions, death threats, burglaries and violence against gay people and those supporting gay rights. In a June 23 post he reported on the break-in at the office of one of Cameroon’s few attorneys who represented gay clients, who already had sent his family out of the country in the face of threats against them. Lembembe noted that the lawyer himself stayed, “to continue the fight. In light of what happened on June 16, it’s clear that the fight will be long and difficult.”
Lembembe’s last post appeared on July 5: After attacks, LGBTI defenders in Cameroon seek safety, about the aftermath of an arson attack on a center providing health information and care for men who have sex with men, particularly for those living with HIV. Furniture, equipment, supplies and patients medical records were all destroyed. “Cameroonian officials show no signs that they are aware of the problem,” Lembembe wrote. “No one has denounced the attacks.”
He lived for a little more than a week after that post appeared. After he didn’t show up at meetings over the following weekend, his burned and beaten body was found in his home July 15. His neck and feet were broken and he had been tortured with a hot clothing iron, according to news reports.
Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and the U.S. Department of State called for investigations into Lemembe’s murder. The Global Fund issued a statement denouncing the killing, offering condolences to Lemembe’s family and friends, and stressing its support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Cameroon. “We are committed to supporting the essential work done by organizations like Eric’s that focus on the right to health,” Global Fund executive director Mark Dybul says in the statement.
This week, a newly formed coalition of organizations supporting the sexual minority community of Cameroon issued a statement asking for help — with funding for security measures and emergencies, and a central and safe meeting place. The dangers confronting them had reached a critical point, and without additional support, they could not go on as they had, they said.
“Because of the dangers of the current situation, in cities of Yaoundé and Douala we are forced to suspend immediately the projects we have with USAID through Care Cameroon and with the Global Fund through CAMNAFAW (Cameroon National Association for Family Welfare). Minimal services will continue to be provided to our clients.
“We reject a partnership that reduces our associations to simply a labor force that must work in precarious, dangerous conditions.”