Gay in Zimbabwe: Arrests, Limited Access to Health Care

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Gay in Zimbabwe: Arrests, Limited Access to Health Care

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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE -- Nkululeko Ncube, 21, says he is a shadow of who he once was. The once vivacious and gregarious young man is now living in isolation. His community has shunned him.

Last year, Ncube was a successful salesman for a local stationery company. Things were going smoothly until he entered into a relationship with young man from the same neighborhood of Luveve in Zimbabwe’s second largest city of Bulawayo. For close to four months, their relationship was blissful. Then one night they were caught kissing in a garden outside a Christmas party. Ncube says all hell broke loose. His life has not been the same since.

He and his partner have endured discrimination and violence. “My mother enticed us into a room and locked us inside for almost an hour,” Ncube recalls. “Then two men, wearing blue work suits, entered with big sticks to beat us like wild animals. One of the men hit my head with so much force that I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness my body had deep lacerations that required emergency medical attention, but no one was there to help me,” Ncube says.

Ever since, the two men have been shunned from their homes and are not welcome in their community. They have slept under bridges, eaten anything they could get their hands on and have taken baths in the heavily contaminated streams of Bulawayo.

After two weeks in the wilderness, Ncube decided enough was enough. He tried to sneak back home only to find he had been fired from his job. He is not able to attend the marketing course he has been studying in for the last two years. Worst of all, he says, he is not welcome in the church where he has been a member since he was born. In Zimbabwe, there is an ingrained cultural, religious and political prejudice toward lesbians and gays.

People who are openly gay or lesbian are often forced to endure degrading verbal assaults – they are called Ngochani, a derogatory term. Ncube and his partner are not the only victims of the often-violent stigmatization of sexual minorities in Zimbabwe. The cultural abhorrence of homosexuality has been exacerbated by the political leadership of Zimbabwe, spearheaded by President Robert Mugabe.

For more than a decade, Mugabe has been plain about his anti-gay views. Since 1995 he has ignored calls for reform of the constitution to recognize gays and lesbians. In response to activist’s constitutional demands, Mugabe called for the immediate arrest of anyone “caught practicing homosexuality.” He went further to declare that gays and lesbians were “sexual perverts” who are “lower than pigs.” His comments and their aftershocks have dealt a strong blow to the universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights activism that has been building in Africa.

The consequences of Zimbabwe’s anti-gay leadership are manifest in nearly every sector of society here. Police often enforce little known chapters of the Codification and Reform Act, which criminalizes the public affection of two people of the same sex. This regulation has led to wide spread arrests. Homophobia within the government has resulted in the exclusion of sexual minorities from developmental programs and health care initiatives. Activists say gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe are the targets of hate messaging, discrimination and unjust policies with little end in sight.

According to local human rights organizations, police throughout Zimbabwe are enforcing a little known clause in the criminal code, Chapter 9 (23) of the Codification and Reform Act, which classifies that two people of the same sex holding hands, hugging or kissing as illegal. Belinda Weale, a lesbian and board member for the Gay and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe, says that the late Director of GALZ, Keith Goddard, was arrested and detained on several occasions for his activism in support of gays and lesbians.

“The Zimbabwe Republic Police is partisan and too loyal to President Mugabe. They always act in accordance to his whims,” says Frank Jabson, a program manager for the Creative Centre for Communication and Development, a local civic organization. “Mugabe uses the gay issue to win the hearts and minds of conservatives,” Jabson adds.

“President Mugabe has been allowed to stigmatize gays and lesbians during national elections in the country,” Goddard was quoted in 2002. Some civil servants and politicians have resigned from office after the media exposed their sexual inclinations. One such civil servant Alum Mpofu, the former chief executive officer of the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, was caught by security guards at a Harare pub in “a compromising position with another man.”

The country’s main newspapers gave prominent coverage to the story. Mpofu resigned “amid questions about his sexuality,” reported the Voice of America. The culture of discrimination and fear has also altered policy in Zimbabwe to prevent access to sexual and reproductive health care services for sexual minorities. One such policy is the Zimbabwe National Maternal and Neonatal Health Road Map. The policy seeks to guide the country to achieving goals set in the Maputo Plan of Action. MpoA is a pan-African policy framework for universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in Africa, which was crafted by the African Union in 2006.

Dr. David Parirenyatwa, a former health minister and Mugabe ally, represented Zimbabwe in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where MpoA discussions took place. At the time of the conference, he endorsed the universal access document with other health ministers in Africa. MpoA recognizes the need to address issues pertaining to marginalized groups, which include sexual minorities. However, Zimbabwe’s Health Road Map that emerged after the conference, fails to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals and sex workers and it does not address their health challenges.

“The road map adopted by Dr. Parirenyatwa is too simplified and shallow and fails to address the needs of sexual minorities. It is obvious that Parirenyatwa was trying to steer away from issues that might provoke President Mugabe and other influential conservatives in Zimbabwe,” says Jabson of the CCCD in Zimbabwe. Homophobia is also rampant in the health sector. According to Doctor Davidzo Matutu-Makosa, a senior medical doctor at the United Bulawayo Hospital, a government institution, said the medical curricula here do not discuss issues pertaining to sexual minorities or proper treatments. “A lot of doctors in Zimbabwe have negative perceptions about gays and lesbians. Some doctors even provide counseling to gays and lesbians in an effort to rehabilitate them,” said Matutu-Makosa.

Under a staunchly anti-gay government, few activists are hopeful that policy will change any time soon. “President Mugabe’s statements on gays will continue to hound many sectors of Zimbabwean life. No one in government can stand up to challenge his statements. Zimbabwe needs to develop a clear plan of action to achieve goals set in the MPoA without taking into consideration the President’s ill-advised statements,” says Jabson.

For Ncube, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Cultural and religious forces against him are very strong. “President Mugabe is still in power and showing no signs of changing his mind on the issues of sexual minorities. No one in government can stand up to him on that issue,” says Ncube sadly.

This article was created in partnership with Voices of Our Future.