Dr Aflodis Kagaba is the executive director of Health Development Initiative Rwanda, a health-focused non-governmental organisation located in Kigali that spearheads a coalition of over 40 groups conducting campaign and advocacy work for sexual minorities within the country.
He told The EastAfrican the campaign began a couple of years ago in 2009, when Rwanda started to talk about criminalising same-sex relationships as part of revisions to its Penal Code.
“Around that time in the region, there was a drive to criminalise homosexuality — not only in Rwanda, but also in Uganda and Burundi,” he said. “All the parliaments in the region took up the cause to create articles to criminalise [it], and so when the article was introduced, there was a lot of pressure.
“In the beginning, of course, it was very challenging. We were experiencing hate speech, people phoning in to radio programmes saying ‘Kill them, take them back to the West — they’re not part of us.’ But the media themselves were fanatical at that time — so it required more of an individual engagement, talking to them and discussing the issues involved. It was also important to educate them on some of the documents (in the Constitution) showing that people have rights. So for me, there’s an issue of lack of awareness, and of ignorance of human rights, that needs to continue to be addressed.”
At least in Rwanda, the coalition’s efforts have paid off. After much debate, Rwanda moved to eliminate the criminalisation provision from its draft code last year, and sign the UN Statement on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity — one of only six African countries to do so. The others are the Central African Republic, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and South Africa.)
Why has Rwanda taken the lead in East Africa?
Rwanda’s stance is in stark contrast to its East African neighbours…But it is perhaps curious why Rwanda — a country where Christianity, and especially Catholicism, still represents a strong influence — should have taken the lead in this respect.
Kagaba suggests the country’s recent past is a factor in the government’s willingness to crack down on discrimination. “Recently, I was in Kenya at the Changing Faces conference, which had activists from all over Africa. Mostly, they advance cultural reasons for the difference; religious reasons, too. But I think the main reason is that Rwanda has a very strong historical memory of what discrimination can do to any particular group, which for me is why I think their response has been very positive, in contrast to the other countries in the region. [It seems] the government has learned from its history that any discrimination against any particular group can cause more negative consequences, and I think that’s why the leadership was very responsive on this issue.”
There is still much work to do in Rwanda and Kagaba believes that an assertive move by the government to legally protect LGBTI persons is critical.
Ultimately, eliminating that stigma is difficult — perhaps impossible — while the government remains passive. “The key is that the government provides protection,” Kagaba said. “If the government can go ahead and provide a protective legal environment, then the activists will do their work throughout East Africa, easily. But at the moment, without that framework, there is a lot of pressure on them not to speak, or in the case of Uganda, give negative statements. But the Rwandese case shows it doesn’t have to be the case.”