The objective of the research was to recognise problems faced by lesbians in Rwanda since 2004, following homophobic attacks and arbitrary arrests that took place in Kigali, conducted between February and June this year by Naome Ruzindana, Director for Horizon Community Association (HOCA), a gay rights organisation in Rwanda.
In the research sixteen lesbians being were interviewed through questionnaires.
“The major intent of this research was to document the lived realities of out lesbians, willing to give their testimonies, create an understanding of the background and experiences of lesbians in Kigali (Rwanda) and also to identify the mechanism for lesbians to engage with the mainstream Rwanda and get their formal fundamental rights, as many cases of harassments against lesbians are overshadowed”, said Ruzindana.
A participant, known only as Nusher, said discrimination and harassment are the most common issues they face almost on a day to day basis.
“Everyone has experienced discrimination and harassment, I’m having difficulties with the local authorities because I live with my partner in the same house and people have reported us to the local authorities. People surrounded us and wanted to bring in the media to expose us, but I wasn’t threatened”, she said.
“We’ve been publicly harassed at nightclubs and bars, and many men approach us and ask us how we have sex and how we can satisfy our partners, we are called cruel words and beaten in bars and clubs in most occasions”, she added.
According to Ruzindana lesbians do exist in Rwanda, are completely ignored and misunderstood, and as a result suffer because the mainstream culture has, to date, been intolerant as, even in traditional society, lesbians used to be there but it was never accepted.
“The situation may be caused by the lack of friendly families and society. Similarly the mainstream culture has, to date, been intolerant, the church’s involvement, weakness of human rights organisations, misconception and rights might have a greater contribution to make the situation more difficult. Avoiding cases of horrific experiences against lesbians in Kigali (Rwanda) depends on rightful information, settings, state involvement”, she said.
Currently in Rwanda there is no law criminalising homosexuality but there is a bill currently being tabled that could see homosexuality being criminalised.
However many individuals find themselves harassed, threatened, imprisoned or abused because of their sexual orientation. Discrimination, and even physical violence, is a daily reality for those who are open about their sexual orientation, and as a result, many gays and lesbians live secretive lives, unable to tell their families or friends about their sexual orientation.
“Many lesbians in Rwanda are treated as sexual deviants and they are misunderstood and have gone through a lot of experiences. Rwandese Society itself was and remained closed with regard to discussion of sex and sexuality”, added Ruzindana.
Meanwhile late last year following interventions from Rwandan civil society as well as the international community and governments, the Rwandan Government indicated that Article 217 which, if included, would criminalise homosexuality for the first time in Rwanda, will not be a part of the final text of the penal code revisions.
However Ruzindana maintains that legislative activity in Rwanda last year failed to move towards the greater compliance with the state mandate to protect the individual rights regardless of the sexual orientation.
“Rather last year’s amendments demonstrated the lack of commitment by state to protect the Lesbian, Gay ,Bisexual,Trangender and Intersex (LGBTI) individuals and this has also inspired the families and the general community to regard them as disgraced people and outcasts to the culture and Rwanda social norms”, Ruzindana retorted.
Maddox, also a participant in the study expressed her worry about the pending penal code saying, “We need some lobbying and advocacy to stop the acceptance of this. We are very traumatised because we don’t know where and how to exercise our rights, there are things that we are afraid to do because of the impending law.”
Ruzindana concluded that the study led to the realization of the terrible and stigmatised lives of the LGBTI community in Rwanda as cultural and religious beliefs remain the grounds in which homosexuality is condemned in Rwanda and have been major causes of the hatred of homosexuals,fueling homophobia, discrimination and harassment.
“There is a need for more sensitization, lobbying and advocacy to better the livelihood and well being of the LGBTI community”, she said.
Jane who also participated in the study said in order to improve the lives of LGBTI people in Rwanda, “The process should start with us, we must be out, united and visible as HOCA members before we can advocate to others. Visibility is worth the risks, you can’t fight a battle when you are hidden, we need to come out and fight for our rights and respect.”
“People need to get to know us, we are all human beings and we deserve equal rights and treatment”, she added.
HOCA is a Rwandan community organisation that advocates for LGBTI rights and working towards a society that wants to be liberated from oppression, stigma, and hate crimes.