Elephant in the Room: LGBT Rights Under Fire in Zambia

On the 7th of April, Zambian gay activist Paul Kasonkomona was arrested after taking part in a live television appearance where he called for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in his native state. Officers attempted to arrest Mr Kasonkomonaduring his live appearance, but were stopped by the managers of the television station and were forced to arrest him later that night. He was charged with ‘inciting the public to take part in indecent activities’ and jailed until the 11th of April, when he was released on bail. This event marks not only the denial of an individual’s right to free speech, but also highlights serious and pervasive human rights violations against the homosexual community in Zambia.

Male-to-Male homosexual activity in Zambia is considered an ‘indecent activity’ and banned nation-wide. The 1995 edition of the Zambian Penal Code Act states that ‘Any person who; permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him…against the order of natures; is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years. Individuals are encouraged to report homosexual behaviour to the police, and according to a 2010 survey,98% of Zambians disapprove of homosexual behaviour. This incredibly entrenched homophobia within Zambian society allows and encourages government officials to intrude on the private, intimate lives of its citizens. Countries the world over have discriminatory laws against homosexuals. France only just recently allowed gays to marry and adopt children (both of which are considered human rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and many US states still ban same-sex marriages. Zambia’s case is not only an extreme example of state-encouraged homophobia, but also contributes to the out-of-control AIDS problem in the country.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 13.5% of adults in Zambia have HIV/AIDS, and there are an estimated 200 new cases of HIV every day. This epidemic has progressed out of the hands of the Zambian government, and threatens the lives and livelihood of citizens in all parts of society. HIV/AIDS is well-known for its high presence in the gay community, and the criminalisation of homosexual acts only serves to worsen the problem. It is difficult for gay men to get proper treatment for their illness, and equally difficult for AIDS groups and researchers to get accurate infection rates for the gay population. The 13.5% infection rate quoted above is probably much lower than the actual infection rate due to this issue. The high infection rate within the gay community is not isolated, as shown by a survey carried out by the International AIDS Society which found that 50% of men between the ages of 15 and 35 have had sex with men and women within the last 12 months. This relatively high percentage lies in stark contrast to the survey quoted above showing that 98% of Zambians disapprove of homosexual behaviour, and indicates a sharp contrast between the public face of Zambians and their private actions. The gay population is left untreated by the country’s state efforts to address the epidemic. Bishop J.H.K. Banda, the Chairman of the National AIDS Council of Zambia declared that anti-gay attitudes are ‘traditional values’, and supports the existing legislation banning sodomy and other ‘unnatural’ sexual acts.

In order for Zambia to fully address its AIDS issue, it must embrace the gay community and openly offer to it the resources it offers to the rest of its citizens. It can do this easily, by simply removing the homophobic language within the penal code and establishing programs to lift the homosexual community out of second-class citizenship and onto equal footing with the rest of the population. The issue is not only one of bad governance, but also of intolerant society. Zambian society must undergo a shift in its understanding of the gay community and its attitudes towards its members. Calling certain values and ways of thinking ‘traditional’ does not legitimize them, it only serves to further entrench those values in society, no matter how irrelevant they may be in the modern day. Zambia is a country with a wealth of potential, but in order to meet that potential, it must uphold the rights of every one of its citizens.

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