Friday, March 14, 2014

Sierra Leonean Youth Team Up to Combat Homophobia

Unclean. Abnormal. Bastards.

These are just a few of the epithets hurled with regularity at gay youth in Sierra Leone. One woman recounted how her uncle, upon discovering that she is a lesbian, told her that he didn't want to see her in his house again, adding: “I will not live with a beast and a bastard like you.”

Sierra Leone is among 38 of 54 countries in Africa that have laws against homosexuality. Although the law in Sierra Leone—a vestige of the British, colonial-era laws against “buggery”—is rarely enforced, it contributes to, and reflects, widespread homophobia in Sierra Leonean society.

Sierra Leonean youth leaders gather to discuss ways to combat homophobia in their respective villages.

Homophobia exacts a particularly heavy toll on Sierra Leonean youth who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Many are abandoned by their families and left with nowhere to live. Others are forced to drop out of high school and university.

To address these issues, Global Rights and our Sierra Leonean partner, the Coalition for Equality and Gender, hosted more than 30 youth leaders from across Sierra Leone—many of whom are not gay—for a daylong conference in mid-February about sexual orientation and gender identity. The coalition, which grew out of Global Rights’ initial two-year project in Sierra Leone, comprises three LGBT-rights organizations and four mainstream rights groups. The coalition’s mission is to “fight discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

After participating in facilitated dialogue groups and discussions, the youth leaders emerged with suggestions about how to move forward with the campaign for LGBT rights.  The groups and discussions produced consensus about the need to educate and sensitize the wider public to the plight of the LGBT community, with particular outreach to religious leaders, tribal leaders, and the media, who wield broad influence over the public but are largely hostile to the LGBT community.

Furthermore, the youth recognized the major obstacles that LGBT persons in Sierra Leone face when trying to access health care. In September 2013, Global Rights released a report documenting these obstacles. The report highlights a pervasive situation facing the LGBT community in Sierra Leone, which receives less medical care than their heterosexual counterparts. The roots of this situation lie in part with doctors and nurses who simply refuse to treat people who have medical issues linked to homosexuality, and in part with LGBT people who are too embarrassed or fearful to see doctors because of the resulting humiliation and violence they will face if their sexual orientation is discovered. Among 80 participants in a survey, 33 percent said they 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.

The conference, which took place in city of Makeni, is part of a yearlong project that began September 2013 and is being funded by the U.S. Department of State. Global Rights’ initial two-year program in Sierra Leone, which lasted from April 2011 to June 2013, served to identify the challenges that the LGBT community faces, while this new project will focus on overcoming those challenges.

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