Friday, September 6, 2013

Addressing Discrimination Against the Sierra Leonean LGBT Community

The National Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and the local police chief of Freetown said in 2010 that there were very few complaints about discrimination and violence against the country’s LGBT community. These statements, however, are very misleading because LGBT people are afraid to report rights abuses. After spending more than a year collecting information in the field, Global Rights—in collaboration with Sierra Leonean LGBT organizations Pride Equality and Dignity Association—confirmed that the country’s LGBT people suffer from pervasive discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation.

In May, Global Rights published a report about its findings, and Friday morning Carlos Quesada, Global Rights’ Advisor on the Rights of the LGBTI people, shared the findings of that report with a group of more than 30 people from the U.S. State Department and various human rights organizations. A main issue the report highlights is that members of the LGBT community in Sierra Leone receive less medical care than their heterosexual counterparts, in part because doctors and nurses simply refuse to treat people who have medical issues linked to homosexuality, and in part because LGBT people are too embarrassed or fearful to see doctors for such issues because of the resulting humiliation and violence they will face if their sexual orientation is discovered. Among 80 participants of a survey, 33 percent did not go to doctors for fear of being discovered as gay; 39 percent simply “self-medicated” to avoid seeing doctors; and 28 percent were denied treatment because their ailments were linked to homosexuality. Moreover, for the same reasons that they will not see a doctor, LGBT people seldom report incidents of discrimination to the police or other authoritative bodies.

Meeting Friday about the Sierra Leonean LGBT community, which took place at Global Rights' office and included representatives of the U.S. State Department and various human rights organizations.
One way to address the discrimination is through the state’s court system. Matthew Swinehart, an associate with Covington & Burling LLP, talked Friday about possible legal avenues to pursue when addressing this issue. Although Sierra Leone won independence from England in 1965, the country retained the same British laws that were used during its colonial history. The legal code has not been updated since the end of the 19th century and includes an anti-sodomy law, which is enumerated in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The law is not often enforced, but it does contribute significantly to the pervasive stigma against homosexuality in the country.

Challenging the law would be difficult—but not impossible. There are four individual rights protected under charters to which Sierra Leone is a signatory. They are: non-discrimination, privacy, life and liberty, and equality. The two agreements to which Sierra Leone is a signatory are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Although sexual orientation is not a type of identity group explicitly protected by any of these two charters, Mr. Swinehart said that with enough political and legal pressure, the Sierra Leonean judiciary could take the view that discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes a violation of these treaties. Mr. Swinehart also mentioned that there is a legal precedent where former British colonies abrogated British law and, in doing so, decriminalized sodomy. One such country is South Africa.

Strengthening the grassroots level has been the focus of our work in Sierra Leone. Speaking to this, Scott Busby, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, noted that even if Sierra Leonean law is changed, the situation for the LGBT community will not likely change until public opinion changes. In furthering this cause, Global Rights continues to work with local civil society organizations (CSOs)—both LGBT groups and other human rights organizations—to improve their advocacy skills at the local, regional and international levels. As a result of our work, a coalition was formed by committed individuals called the Coalition of Equality and Gender, which comprises four LGBT groups and four non-LGBT human rights groups that advocate on behalf of all marginalized populations, including the LGBT community.

Going forward, Global Rights and the local CSOs now know—thanks in large part to their research and data presented in the report—of the challenges the Sierra Leonean LGBT community faces. However, the evidence-gathering and report-writing phase was only the first of a two-phase initiative, both of which are being funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The second phase will involve Global Rights’ continued collaboration with the Coalition and other interested CSOs to empower the local LGBT community to advocate on behalf of their members, who routinely are victims of discrimination and violence. In a few weeks, for example, the coalition plans to meet with two, local lawyers to discuss ways to prepare a legal challenge to the anti-sodomy law.

We are optimistic that with the dedicated work of the local CSOs, combined with our oversight and training, the LGBT and human rights community of Sierra Leone will continue moving closer to their mission of creating a just society for all the country’s citizens. As Carlos said in his closing remarks, 
Unlike other African countries, Sierra Leone represents a unique opportunity. Sierra Leone is actually a place where things can be done.”


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