FROM the just-ended SADC summit held in Gaborone, Botswana, I came to learn about how civil society organisations in our region are pushing for the legalisation of homosexuality.
Apparently, this was a big and divisive issue at the just-ended 11th Southern Africa Civil Society Forum (CSF) held on the margins of the 35th ordinary summit of the heads of state and government.
I was surprised that some pastors and bishops, especially those from South Africa came out in support of homosexuality.
A Zimbabwean feminist activist, Isabella Matambanadzo raised the tempo for the debate when in her presentation themed: “Securing justice for all: The rights of minorities under threat”, called for legalisation of same-sex sexual contact.
Statistics released by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission indicates that 32 countries in Africa, including Zambia, criminalise same-sex sexual contact with jail term.
Isabella, who was invited to the summit by the SADC Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (SADC-CNGO) to prepare delegates for the debate, started by lamenting the murders, discrimination and the criminal tag that hangs on homosexuals in Africa.
She touched on the plight of female homosexuals in South Africa, who have been raped and brutally killed, though homosexuality is legalised in that country.
She said anti-gay laws in Zambia and other countries are archaic and should conform to the changing times.
“Banning who adult citizens love are colonial laws and we must stop this discrimination,” Ms Matambanadzo said.
In other words, she was saying men or women of the same sex should be allowed to marry or have sexual contact without fear of condemnation by society and prosecution in the courts of law.
This is an agenda that the SADC-CNGO is pushing and they intend to petition SADC leaders to consider amending anti-gay laws and commit their countries to protecting LGBTI rights. This is what the executive director of SADC-CNGO, Boichoko Dithlhake, shared with me in an interview at Ave Maria where civil societies were meeting on the margins of the SADC summit.
As usual, civil societies normally have a parallel summit whenever there is a gathering of heads of state and government. They deliberate on matters pertaining to regional integration; particularly economic, social, cultural and civil rights of the people.
The aim is to press governments to make SADC work for the benefit of the people. They have also launched a campaign dubbed “the SADC We Want (SWW-C) that seeks to raise awareness and mobilise citizens of the region on regional integration and the devel-opment agenda.
The campaign also demands full participation of the people in policy formulation and implementation to address real challenges.
In addition to that, the SWW-C has three pertinent demands – establishment of a regional parliament, SADC court of justice and transformation of the SADC secretariat to a regional authority.
So the CSF stands for a noble campaign, unfortunately, the issue of homosexuality seems to threaten the unity and future of this alliance of civil societies.
At the just-ended summit, SADC-CNGO threatened to pull out of the forum if its alliance partners continue refusing to endorse homosexuality.
The forum is convened by regional apex alliance comprising the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa (FOCCISA); Southern Africa Trade Unions Coordinating Council (SATUCC) and SADC-CNGO.
On the agenda of the 11th CSF held at Ave Maria Pastoral Centre in Gaborone, was the issue of a rights-based approach to-wards Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI).
The agenda of the summit was circulated well in advance, so delegates came prepared to make their stance known on the cam-paign.
Under the CSF, the SADC-CNGO has taken a position to back same-sex intimate relationships or marriage if you like.
And they have embarked on a campaign to get SADC member states to decriminalise LGBTI activities and guarantee them protection against violence.
At the Gaborone summit, SADC-CNGO was trying to elicit the support of the church and trade unions on their campaign for a rights-based approach to LGBTIs.
When the debate was opened to the delegates, there was a flurry of emotions between those opposed to homosexuality and the proponents.
Proponents of LGBTI relationships, stood on the human rights argument, saying these are inalienable. They particularly cited violence, assault, murder and discrimination against homosexuals as the basis for their argument.
What came out in the deliberations is that in Africa, homosexuality raises high emotions because of issues of culture and reli-gion. And this is the reason why even delegates from Mozambique and South Africa where homosexuality is legalised came out strongly against the LGBTI campaign.
Even Ms Matambanadzo herself said murders of lesbians have taken place in South Africa where homosexuality is legalised as opposed to countries where it is illegal.
Mozambique passed a law last year to legalise homosexuality, but Mozambican men were among the most vocal anti-gays dur-ing the 11th CSF.
A Mozambique national, Sudecar Novela said things that have been happening in his country since they legalised homosexuali-ty are amazing.
He said there was a meeting of homosexuals in Mozambique where there was a strange display of intimacy between same sex couples.
“It was strange to see men kissing at a meeting of homosexuals in Mozambique. It’s immoral and we can’t hide in the name of human rights. We are Africans not Europeans,” Mr Novela.
Another Mozambican said it was sad that the Western world is imposing the culture of homosexuality on Africa as a condition for aid.
“Economic issues are imposed on us, the rules that are used to get money are also imposed on us. And this is what concerns [worries] me,” he said.
Another Mozambican man who only identified himself as Ndila, said it is not good for Africa to go against its culture by sup-porting homosexuality.
Ndila said although his country has legalised homosexuality, a lot of problems have arisen from that move.
Johannes Chigwada, a founder member of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said Africa has serious developmental challenges that need attention.
“We have problems of climate change, why are we talking about gays? It won’t develop our countries, how is it going to help us, Mr Chigwada said.
On the other hand a South African bishop, Malusi Mpumlwana took a soft stance towards homosexuality.
Bishop Mpumlwana, who is acting general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said people with a different sexual orientation need to be loved and not judged because it is not their fault that some of them are that way.
He said he expected a broader debate because minorities groups are not only limited to gays and lesbians.
However, he said although he is mindful that there are a lot of people opposed to homosexuality, he is ready to get the church debate the matter from a human right’s perspective.
At the end of this debate, SADC-CNGO was blocked from adopting a rights-based approach on homosexuals. FOCCISA and SATUCC demanded the removal of the LGBTI clause in the communique. The NGO mother body has decided to go to its affiliates in 15 SADC member states, Zambia inclusive, to consult on the way forward.
They expect the church and trade unions to do the same and also commit themselves to defending human rights of homosexu-als.
If their alliance partners, FOCCISA and SATUCC stick to their position, the SADC-CNGO will break away from the CSF.
But Mr Muneku could not say if SATUCC will go and consult members on the issue, saying it’s up to the affiliates to decide whether or not the matter was a priority.
This was a hot debate and there was tension particularly on the last day when SATUCC and FOCISSA demanded the removal of the pro-gay clause from the communique.
Gay activists who attended the meeting were sad that the clause was removed from the communique.
The idea was to petition SADC leaders to legalise homosexuality, therefore last Friday’s development was a big setback to proponents of the campaign.
One of the disappointed activists was Shehnilla Mohamed, the Africa coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
She said proceedings of CSF has taken them backwards in their campaign, because in 2010, LGBTI rights were mentioned in the communique.
As delegates were exchanging words on the matter, my heart was with opposers of homosexuality, mainly on account of my Christian belief.
I although I do not support violence against homosexuality, I feel that the region has serious challenges that civil societies need to expend ther energy on.
And if their concern is really on violence against minorities, then efforts are misplaced because gender-based violence poses a much more serious violation of human rights.
Like the SADC senior programme officer in the gender unit, Elizabeth Kakukuru, observed there is an upward trend of GBV and new forms are now emerging.
In Namibia, for instance, “passion killing” of women by a jilted lover has become common. In my view, it’s things like GBV and poverty among women that need urgent attention from a human rights perspective.