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Trying not to be afraid in Burundi

in BURUNDI, 10/11/2011

Burundi's gay rights group is concerened that situation in the country is worsening as a result of criminalizing and increasing homophobia in neighbouring countries.

The title says it all.

Burundi’s largest gay rights group is called Humure, which means “Don’t be afraid” in the Kirundi language, but, ironically, its leaders are afraid to come out. None of the three executives interviewed by Xtra use their real names in the media, and only one of them is out to his family.

They weren’t always so guarded.

When the group was founded in 2003, it was called the Association pour le respect des droits des homosexuels (association for the rights of homosexuals), and its members participated publicly in AIDS prevention campaigns. However, things changed in 2009 when gay sex was criminalized for both men and women in Burundi, as a wave of homophobia swept that part of Africa. So, a more discrete name was chosen.

Gay sex had never been a crime in Burundi and, though the group says the law is not actively enforced, it had a chilling effect. The Internet cafe that Humure operated had to close because gays were too afraid to be seen there. According to its coordinator, the group stepped back and focused more on health issues. The law scares a lot of people, he said.

The daily struggles faced by LGBT Burundians are detailed in Forbidden, a collection of printed and online testimonies made by Human Rights Watch in 2009. They talk about how they have been fired from their jobs, beaten by parents and neighbourhood youth and evicted from their homes. They see the new law as a huge step backward.

The U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report for 2010 says that discrimination is not always overt or widespread in Burundi. Families sometimes disowned their children, and LGBT’s were often forced to marry persons of the opposite sex due to social pressure, with a Humure survey showing that 90% of men who have sex with men were married.

At least, the situation is better than in several other African countries. With a maximum punishment of two years in jail, Burundi’s law is far less drastic than those of Tanzania and Uganda, for example, where the maximum is life imprisonment, or of Somalia and four other countries, where it is death.

And, unlike Uganda, in Burundi the media are not interested in outing LGBTs, and people are not beaten in the streets.

However, Humure is concerned that the situation is worsening, due to the criminalization and increasing homophobia in neighbouring countries. A lot of people have been kicked out of their houses, according to the group’s legal representative.

There are a few hopeful signs, though. The diplomatic community is sympathetic, and one political party that considers that gays are “people like others” won four seats in the last election.

Humure’s legal representative even thinks that there will be a gay pride in Burundi one day." Hopefully in a few years, we will have some rights," he says. "It will come."

Burundi is a tiny country in the center of sub-Saharan Africa. According to Wikipedia, about 75% of its 8 million people are Christian and 20% belong to indigenous religions. Largely rural and agricultural, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its official languages are French and Kirundi.

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