Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Burundian Homosexuals Suffer Under New Anti-Gay Law

By Alan Boswell


03 August 2009

Homosexuals in Burundi say that their lives have been marked with increased discrimination and fear following the East African country's move to ban homosexual practices. Burundi officially passed the law criminalizing homosexuality in April this year.

The interviews conducted by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch documents the difficulties of being a gay or lesbian in Burundi, including instances of sexual violence, family rejection, police intimidation, and now the daily possibility of imprisonment.

Yves, an HIV-positive gay man who lives in Bujumbura, says that finding work has been a serious challenge for him since the law was passed. He also worries that the new law will discourage those in the gay community from seeking HIV testing and treatment for fear of scrutinization.

Another self-identified gay man from Bujumbura, Théophile, says that he was beginning to see increased tolerance among his friends and family before the issue became politicized. He describes the law as a "step backward."

Burundi received sharp rebukes from much of the international community following the passage of the law. Key donor countries Belgium and The Netherlands have been critical of the move.

Much of the region has laws which criminalize gay relations, but for Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, these laws were largely remnants of the colonial British rule. Burundi's actions received special attention from human rights organizations because under its Belgian colonization, no law existed against gay behavior.

The new law first passed the National Assembly in November 2008. Amid international pressure, the country's Senate overwhelmingly rejected the criminalization provision.

The Burundi National Assembly, though, refused to accept the Senate's rejection, and the law became final in April.

The action by the Burundi government to formally outlaw homosexual activity came as a small group of gays and lesbians began to bring the issue into the public spotlight and attempt to create national discussions about what had always before been a sensitive subject.

Encouraged by some of the recent gains seen globally by gay activists, the Association for Respect and Rights for Homosexuals was formed five years ago in Bujumbura to mainly serve as a support group for gays and lesbians

Since 2007, though the group began to do radio interviews and more actively make its case for increased homosexual rights to the public.

But the group's limited public exposure seems to have created an intense political backlash, at least for the short term.

According to Human Rights Watch researchers, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza personally led the charge to get the law passed. Following the Senate's rejection of the clause, his ruling party organized an anti-gay march in Bujumbura, bussing in protesters from rural areas. His office then reportedly phoned legislators individually to lobby for the April passage.

Some observers partly attributed the president's activism on the issue as a move to weaken political rivals within his own party who had made public statements seen as more liberal on the gay rights issue.

Boris Dittrich, head of homosexual rights advocacy at Human Rights Watch, which actively worked against the law's passage, says that his group has not given up its efforts to have the criminalization rescinded.

"After the next elections, there might be the possibility that new politicians will see that criminalization of homosexual conduct is a violation of human rights and it doesn't lead to anything productive. So we will continue trying to persuade politicians in Burundi to change course," Dittrich said.

The group says that it hopes that the international backlash Burundi received for its action will pressure the government to quietly seek to modify the law after the 2010 elections.

Human Rights Group researchers told VOA that, like similar trends seen in elsewhere in the world, there is a growing tolerance among the country's youth for gays and lesbians, while older generations are much more likely to consider it a taboo.

The progress that homosexuals have seen in the country towards acceptance, though, is mostly limited to its capital city, Bujumbura. The vast majority of Burundians live in rural areas.

Many of the those interviewed by the organization shared similar stories of banishment by family members if their sexual identity was discovered.

Seventy-seven countries in the world have laws against homosexuality, many of them in Africa.

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