Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ugandan Bank Denies Account to Trans Activist

Call me stupid, but I didnt know that I may have a problem opening a bank account in Uganda. Just because I am gay, or, am a gay activist?
Well, things can be kind of different in my beloved Uganda. Check out this story that I lift from the Advocate.
I blog here anonymously. Oh, many kuchus know who gug is. I told them. I dont doubt the govt knows who I am. Have not been hiding. Would I be paranoid to assume that my personal account is being monitored? Something to think about this overcast Wednesday morning.

Ugandan Bank Denies Account to Trans Activist

Uganda's ban on homosexuality is playing out in the private sector, with a local branch of the U.K.-based Standard Chartered Bank denying account access to a trans activist.

By Frankie Edozien

An exclusive posted May 27, 2008

International Ugandan Bank Denies Account to Trans Activist

Imagine walking into any major commercial bank, opening a checking or savings account, and then days later being told that your account has been frozen. And oh, by the way, since you’re gay and you work for a gay organization, our bank has a problem with you, and you will not be getting your paychecks deposited into that account.

An unlikely scenario? For most people in the West, yes, but that’s exactly what Juliet Victor Mukasa, a female-to-male transgender activist, says happened to him at a Kampala, Uganda, bank in March.

For all its breathtaking natural beauty and delightfully hospitable and charming citizenry, Uganda is still a place where being openly gay can turn this East African equator nation from paradise into a nightmare.

Homosexuality is criminal in this pearl of Africa. It’s been on the books for ages, with the penal code stipulating that "any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature" to being hauled into prison. It dates back to the penal provisions imposed during the era of British colonialism and was strengthened in 1990 to increase the penalty from 14 years to life.

Yet while these laws remain in force, Uganda has introduced democratic reforms and improved its human rights record since Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986.

Mukasa, 32, a research and policy analyst for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, was born female but now identifies and expresses himself as a male, routinely eschewing skirts for pants. He is cofounder and first chairperson of the Sexual Minorities Uganda group.

In 2005 his home was raided and he went into hiding. Then he did an about-face and sued the government for trampling on his rights by raiding his home without a search warrant and arresting his guests. A judgment is expected in that case soon.

But years after the incident, Mukasa went to Standard Chartered Bank -- an international bank based in London but with branches and subsidiaries all over Africa and Asia -- to open an account.

As at most banks, staff members greeted him courteously and said there would be no problems when he told them where he worked. The account application required him to mention both his current and previous employers.

Human Rights Commission. Could I still have an account here?” Mukasa recounted to The Advocate. “‘Of course, this is an international bank and we don’t discriminate. Just write it,’ was the bank’s officials response.”

Mukasa said he wrote his current employer, IGLHRC, in the blank space and for the question that required his previous employer followed, he wrote, “Sexual Minorities Uganda.”

The adviser made a copy of Mukasa’s passport, took photographs, and asked him to sign a document, then told him to return the following day, a Saturday, with passport photos and the money to be deposited.

The next day, Mukasa recalled, “The adviser took my photos and told me to go pick a deposit slip, fill it and deposit the money that I had. At the top of my completed slip he wrote something like ‘Account open…’ and signed it.”

An elated Mukasa skipped out of the Kampala branch, located in one of the city center skyscrapers, dancing for joy.

The following day he went back and deposited 500,000 Ugandan shillings (about $302) and was asked to come back the following week to apply for a Visa debit/ATM card.

“I told a couple of friends about it, how great SCB is, and I even showed them the deposit slip. They were all happy for me,” he recalls.

But the joy was short-lived. When Mukasa went in to complete the Visa application process, a bank officer took him aside with the original officer who helped open the account and told him there was a problem.

He recalls an official saying, “The account opening process goes through so many hands. Your application form got to some bosses who were not OK with it.” Mukasa asked what was wrong with his application and at first the official failed to explain. “I helped him by asking, ‘Is it because of the fact that I work with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and am a gay person myself?’ He answered in the affirmative.”

Mukasa took his case up the chain even asking for a meeting with the local CEO but the account remained closed.

SCB Uganda’s corporate affairs manager, Herbert Zake, in an April interview in his sky-high office overlooking the Kampala metropolis, stressed the bank’s community involvement over the past year: schools built in rural areas; the commitment to ending blindness by paying for cataract surgeries at $277 a pop; drilling boreholes for rural communities at a cost of $80,000 -- some people have to walk 10-15 kilometers to get water and it may still be contaminated; and large-scale refurbishments of high school facilities in the capital city.

The company is even leading an effort to end stigma among those affected by HIV or AIDS by offering complimentary voluntary testing and providing a supportive environment to HIV positive employees.

But when asked about why a company that was such an outstanding corporate citizen in many ways for Ugandans and Africans at large, was denying an account to a lesbian, Zake appeared stunned by the question for a moment.

And then says, “She indicated that the money was coming from a gay and lesbian human rights organization ... it [homosexuality] is illegal here.”

When pressed on whether national statute against gay actions affected whether gays could have bank accounts, Zake's response was that the matter “is open to interpretation.” The executive then insisted that he would get clarity on the matter and forward a response to this reporter.

In May, when The Advocate contacted SCB’s parent company, officials in the United Kingdom declined to speak publicly about that one case, but insiders pointed out that the bank has a history of opening in culturally challenging locations.

While the mammoth $50 billion bank has branches in 13 African countries, it also operates in the Middle East, including Iraq, and in Afghanistan. In Middle Eastern locations where it might be difficult for both sexes to mingle openly, it has had to open banks primarily for women.

“We have a very strong ethos of diversity and inclusion in the bank and do not discriminate against customers on the grounds of sexual orientation, or gender or race, for that matter,” insists Tim Baxter, Standard Chartered’s London-based head of external communications.

The problem wasn’t SCB’s, but local law that officials feel they must comply with. Since IGLHRC promotes equality for sexual minorities, and activities of such minorities are illegal in Uganda, that puts SCB in an untenable position, insiders say.

“We operate in more than 70 countries with many different cultures and fully comply with all local laws and regulations,” Baxter says.

SCB officials say they have many senior gay and lesbian employees and try to work within the restrictions of local governments to provide retail financial services for all.

In the meantime, Mukasa has to make do with having friends who can lend a hand -- or a bank account.

“IGLHRC wires my salary to a friend's account. This is not comfortable for me. This makes me feel horrible … I am very frustrated. This place is becoming a stranger land for me every day.”

No comments:

Post a Comment