Forward Movement: LGBT Rights in Cameroon

Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon's major port and commercial center
Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon’s major port and commercial center

In response to this week’s Photo Challenge: Forward, I thought I would simply post this photo, taken two weeks ago today, of motorcycle taxis speeding towards Douala, Cameroon.  But there is another kind of movement going on right now in Douala, one that is attempting to move the country forward towards acceptance of the rights of LGBT persons.  These courageous activists, who are risking their lives to end discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Cameroon, deserve more than a photo.  They deserve to have their stories told.

In Cameroon, people who are LGBT face pervasive societal stigma, discrimination,and  harassment.  They also face the possibility of imprisonment – Article 347 of the Cameroonian penal code criminalizes “sexual relations with a person of the same sex”.  At least 28 people have been prosecuted under the law since 2010. One of them is Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was arrested and convicted of homosexuality in March 2011 after sending another man a text message reading, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”  In December 2012, the Cameroonian court of appeals upheld the conviction and sentenced him to three years in prison.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have a high risk of HIV/AIDS infection.  They are often rejected by their families, who force them out of the home.  When targeted by law enforcement, they have more difficulty in obtaining legal protection.Due to the social stigma and intense climate of fear, most LGBT people are forced to live out their lives in secrecy.  Yet there are several impressive non-governmental organizations  – Alternatives-Cameroun, the Association for the Defense of Gay and Lesbian Rights (ADEFHO), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and Evolve, to name a fewwhich are working hard to raise awareness about and provide services to the LGBT community.

When I was in Douala, I was able to visit Alternatives-Cameroun.  Security is, understandably, a big concern.  There is no sign that marks their center on boulevard de la Liberté, and when you arrive, you have to sign in and show your ID.  Alternatives-Cameroun has one doctor at the center who provides HIV/AIDS treatment and medical services to approximately 75 patients.  In addition, Alternatives-Cameroun provides a small community pharmacy, as well as safe, confidential and free HIV testing.  In 2012, they provided 720 HIV tests.

Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala
Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala

Equally important are the services provided by a psychologist and two social workers.  Alternatives-Cameroun also provides public education and outreach, both at the center and through peer educators.  On the day I visited, all of the peer educators were at work out “in the field” in Douala.

What touched me most, though, was the real sense of community that is provided by Alternatives-Cameroun.  I saw a small group of young people sitting on plastic chairs around a table in “William’s Hall” (named after one of the organization’s founders, who died in the Kenya Air plane crash).  I could feel that they were providing each other with comfort and support, a feeling so strong that I could see the connection between them almost as clearly as I could see the young man holding the hand of the woman beside him.

As a way to join the community and to connect with the neighbors around them, Alternatives-Cameroun started a small restaurant that serves a very inexpensive daily lunch. This anti-discriminatory gambit has paid off; the neighbors now come to the restaurant to eat and talk together with the staff and patients.  Often the patients are very poor, so the restaurant means they can offer them a meal or two a day.  The restaurant also provides meals for LGBT detainees in prison.  Prison conditions in Cameroon are notoriously bad, with severe overcrowding and inadequate food.  Most detainees rely on family members to bring them meals.  As LGBT detainees have often been rejected by their families, they have no other access to food.

Restaurant

Activists working on LGBT issues in Cameroon told me that one of their main needs is for more lawyers. One of the very few Cameroonian lawyers who is willing to take on these “homosexuality” cases is Alice Nkom.  The first black woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, Alice has been courageously fighting for the rights of LGBT Cameroonians for many years.  In spite of serious death threats, Alice Nkom continues her work.  “Threats like these show us that the fight must continue,” said Nkom.

with alice in douala

Cameroon has been receiving a lot of criticism recently from the international community, particularly the European Union. The issues of LGBT rights will certainly come up again at the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon this spring.  On January 31, Cameroonian President Paul Biya told reporters that attitudes are changing in his country about the criminalisation of homosexuality.  “Now I can say that discussions are under way. People are talking, minds can change one way or another but currently it’s a crime.”  

The government of Cameroon must do more than discuss.  The government must protect the rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. And when things do change, as they will one day, the credit will go to the brave men and women who have put their heart and souls – not to mention their lives – into moving their country forward on LGBT rights.

To read more about LGBT rights in Cameroon:

Human Rights Watch, Criminalizing Identities (2010)

Joint Stakeholder Submission on LGBT Rights for the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon (2012)

International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Cameroon

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31 thoughts on “Forward Movement: LGBT Rights in Cameroon

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    1. No, unfortunately. Generally lawyers can generally only practice in the jurisdiction where they have been admitted to the bar. So we’re looking at other ways that attorneys in the US and Europe can support lawyers and NGOS working on human rights and rule of law issues. Thanks for your comment!

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    1. I would not be surprised to see Alice win the Nobel Peace Prize one day! I purposefully didn’t name the staff at Alternatives-Cameroun (or use close-up pictures) as I wanted to get their permission first. But they and many others that I met in Cameroon were so courageous and inspiring! I also thought the restaurant idea was brilliant! Thanks for your comment.

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  5. As a member of the gay community in the US I greatly appreciate others who are sacrificing their lives to better the world. Even more so I greatly value folks like yourself who have given a great gift to your own children by teaching them about true humanity. Through them alone you have changed an entire world for the better. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment, baserht04! It is important to note that the gay community in the US and Europe is playing an important role is providing financial, moral and other support to LGBT activists in Africa (and elsewhere in the world). I think that solidarity will continue to increase as the movement in countries like Cameroon gains momentum. As for my kids, sometimes I find I can learn a lot from THEM about advocacy. For example, my 10 year old son’s conversations with his hockey team about same-sex marriage. https://humanrightswarrior.com/2012/08/24/hockey-moms/ Thanks again for your kind words. Have a great day!

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      1. That’s true about learning from your kids. They really are a clean slate – shows we are born wanting to truly help others. My partner and I have a 9 year old. When he was 4 we won a cruise. It was the Rosie cruise. My partner and I spent weeks telling our son how there would be a boat full of kids who would have two moms or two dads. Each time we told him he seemed as if he didn’t care. My partner and I weren’t getting it. Long story short we went on the cruise and returned. The following week when I picked our son up from nursery school (while on our way home) he said, “Momma, did you know my friend, Megan, has a mom and a dad? Isn’t that different?” That’s when it hit me. Our son’s norm was having two moms. He didn’t know any different. And here we were trying to point out the very thing he already knew. It was my partner and I who needed the affirmation not our kid. It took our 4 year old to get us to understand that truth. The learning on our part never stops. Much thanks!

        MaLea

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  9. I deeply admire and am grateful for people in this world who will fight the fights that need to be fought even when they do so with great risk. It is the one thing I have tried to instill in my children…that even when you are unsure of winning, some fights just have to fought. we are working on passing a same sex marriage bill here in NZ, and it amazes me that there are still people around who feel that homosexuality is wrong. I hope that one day we look at a persons soul as their true marker and not the colour of their skin or the sexuality.

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  11. Thanks for the posts, i think the mind set should change, no one has been forced to be homosexual, everyone still has a choice so their choices should be respected.
    I sometimes ask why some governments say they are a democracy and stand under conventions such as the geneva conventions, the human rights Law…
    It is biological and if race has divided us, cultures and traditions and now we have to reject our own brothers and sisters because they feel happy or because biologically they are programmed to be with same sex… then where are we heading to.
    We should understand the needs of every man, ” the need to be happy and have pleasure”, this can only be changed if “discriminators” will go into their system and change their hormonal secretions and their physiology.

    to all who descrimate” think of the murdered persons and think of the families they have, think of the orphans they left back because they tried to protect the lives of your fellow brothers and sisters”

    Somewhere we think of you and always we act for you, who knows tomorrow it might be any of us…
    We will not give up, stay safe and keep healthy

    keep posting

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Everyone has the right to an opinion and I'd love to hear yours! While comments are very welcome, they will be moderated. My kids read this blog, too!

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