Advocating for the human rights of LGBTI persons in Sierra Leone has been costly for Mary Conteh. She has been shunned by other human rights activists and had her office and home burgled. The men who broke into her home sought her life. Conteh makes the important observation that for LGBTI human rights to move forward, recognition must first come from fellow human rights campaigners in Sierra Leone.
“With human rights colleagues, we do not see eye to eye – most of them go at me and they call me names. They do not want people to talk about gay and lesbian issues,” she says.
The lack of support her organisation (the Women’s Centre for Good Governance and Human Rights) has received from “colleagues” gives some indication of the difficulties she has met in advocating such controversial issues.
In November 2010, after Ms Conteh spoke on radio about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, a group of men forcibly entered her home. When they didn’t find her, they manhandled her brother. The attackers asked for her, telling her brother they wanted to take her life.
She fears for her safety and that of her only child, Marie Josephine (4), she says. “Unless I go and pay other people to come and stay in the house, because I am a single parent, I can’t live in the house alone. Even the security, I don’t trust them. I pay them but at times they come and at times they don’t.”
Less than three weeks ago, the offices of her organisation were broken into. Computers and sensitive documents were taken.
“They think that if they steal everything that all of us will scatter and there will not be an office anymore and there will be nobody to talk about this gay and lesbian thing.”…
“The lesbian and gay rights issue – near nothing is moving forward but the only thing is that we have started talking about it.”
For the latter to gain momentum, recognition must first come from fellow human rights campaigners in Sierra Leone, she says.
“Because we have taken that direction, most of them have abandoned us including the human rights commission in Makeni in Sierra Leone.
“The human rights commission don’t give us any protection. Any time we are attacked nothing has been done.”
This article was published in the Irish Times by Front Line, an organisation that provides rapid and practical support to at-risk human rights defenders. "Front Line was founded in Dublin in 2001 with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk, people who work, non-violently, for any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Front Line aims to address the protection needs identified by defenders themselves."
Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga spoke in Kampala, Uganda at the beginning of September and said LGBTI rights are human rights and called for a debate to settle the matter. Mutunga emphasised that the "Human Rights principles that we work on don’t allow us to implement human rights selectively."
The recognition of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex difference as human rights continues to be a struggle for activists at the highest human rights bodies in Africa, including in Sierra Leone.