‘Since the bill came out, we’ve seen a sharp rise in many types of violence,” says Leila, a queer activist in Ghana, describing the impact of a sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ draft bill introduced to parliament a year ago. “Attacks from individuals, from communities. We’re also seeing a big rise in ‘corrective rape’.”
She describes a recent case she worked on where three women in their 30s were raped and robbed by six men. In another incident, a 15-year-old girl was raped by men who said the girl was a lesbian. Many rapes are not reported, as they are committed by family members or people within their own community.
“Just the introduction of the bill has meant a lot of ignorant people in the country act as though it has been passed,” she says. “And people see it as giving permission that LGBTQ+ people should now be killed, should be abused, should be stopped in any way they want to.”
The “anti-LGBT bill” introduced in Ghana last August and currently under review by a parliamentary committee, would be one of the harshest and most sweeping of such laws in Africa.
The current draft of the bill, proposed by opposition MPs and publicly backed by officials in President Nana Akufo-Addo’s government and ruling New Patriotic party, criminalises gay and queer acts or identifying as a LGBTQ+ person, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
It also criminalises any form of advocacy for LGBTQ+ people with up to 10 years in prison. Anyone who hosts advocate groups or meetings on their premises or website would also be criminally liable. Anyone witness to or aware of acts made criminal in the bill would also be forced to report them, according to the bill.
There was a party where 30 people were arrested for being gay. They were detained and extorted by police. It’s the kind of thing we are seeing often
Alex Donkor, LGBT+ Rights Ghana
Campaigners have described the bill as seeking to extinguish and erase gay and queer identity in Ghana, and create the conditions for heightened vigilance and targeting of sexual minorities. “Cross-dressing” would also be prosecuted. Intersex people would be guided by the state to undergo corrective surgery, according to the current bill.
The constitutional review committee scrutinising the bill is expected to recommend amendments in the coming weeks, so not all the clauses in the bill may remain as they are. But the current content of the wide-ranging bill has itself sent a signal in Ghana. Public hysteria over LGBTQ+ people and those advocating for their rights has become intense over the past 18 months.
In February last year, a community centre offering support for gay and queer people and a place for them to meet was forced to close amid attacks from politicians, civil and religious groups and the media. While it was not the first amenity of its kind, it was the most high profile, as it was announced without the usual discretion that LGBTQ+ rights groups typically use to operate within Ghana.
The presence of foreign and European diplomats at the opening of the centre was also seen as provocative as it is often claimed that gay and queer identity is against African culture and is being promoted by the west.
Alex Donkor, who founded the LGBT+ Rights Ghana group, which opened the centre, said reported attacks had increased, especially outside Accra, with regular raids on suspected gatherings of LGBTQ+ people.
“There was a party last month where 30 people were arrested for being gay; they were detained and extorted by police,” he says. “It’s just an example of the kind of thing we are seeing often.”
Leila was among 21 people arrested last March in the city of Ho, at a training event for paralegals helping minorities. They were detained for months, with some subject to abuse by officers before they were released.
“It has been over a year but I’m still struggling to pick up the pieces of my life,” she says. “We came out, then we were hit with the anti-LBGTQ+ bill, and it feels like my life is on pause. If you’re a queer person, it’s like the bill is about erasing your existence.”
The parliamentary review committee has been holding public hearings since late last year, from groups in favour and opposing the bill.
Rita Nketiah, a researcher on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights at Human Rights Watch, says that while the bill is expected to pass, the hearings have been important in shaping what the bill would look like.
“It has given advocacy groups a rare opportunity to make their case openly and directly to parliament,” she says.
“It has been made clear by the parliamentary review committee that the bill itself will not be stopped, but what is up for debate is the content of the bill. They want to make sure it stands the test of time.”
The bill showed the ignorance of MPs around issues of gender and sexuality, including about intersex people, whose vulnerability has come into sharper focus over the past year.
Last year, police in Ho arrested an intersex woman, stripped her in public at the police station and questioned her gender. Officers accused her of denying being a man, and then detained her in male cells and encouraged the men in the cell to “rape her since she says she is a woman, and that perhaps that would clear the doubts from her sick mind”.
Sam George, an MP and prominent advocate of the anti-LGBTQ+ bill in Ghanaian media, has defended the bill and the right of the state to force intersex people to undergo corrective surgery.
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