Mary Mundeya / Regina Pasipanodya
It is around 6pm on a chilly March night, and Themba Maphosa* is seemingly deep in thought as he sits alone in the campus library. By just looking at him one can see he is agony.
His eyes are reflecting hopelessness, such that even the most undiscerning persons can see it.
The majority of students at the college have left for home while those who stay in campus hostels are either relaxing in their rooms or catching up with friends as they wait for supper.
Maphosa is a fourth-year Banking and Finance student at one of Zimbabwe’s prestigious tertiary institutions. As a gifted student, surely he faces a bright future, but he has many doubts because of his nasty experiences.
Despite having stayed in the big city studying – and doing well in his studies for that matter – Maphosa has always faced extreme social exclusion. It’s so bad that it has affected his self-esteem and his socio-economic life.
“I always found myself homeless each time my landlord learnt about my sexuality,” he says with a cracking voice as he narrates how being gay has become a ‘curse’. He believes no one in his community wants to be associated with it.
In fact, one identifying as a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex+ (LGBTQI+) community has not been accepted in many communities in Zimbabwe. Stigma and discrimination of LGBTQI+ persons is common such that it manifests in harassment – both physical and verbal – and in many cases, rejection by peers and family members.
At every turn, many persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity face persecution from State and non-State actors as well as socio-economic exclusion fuelled by stigma and discrimination.
In Maphosa’s case, getting campus accommodation has been impossible because of his sexual orientation.
“Many people in Zimbabwe claim that they do not accept “isithabane” (LGBTQI+ persons) in the society. Since 2020 I have been leading a very difficult life. I never thought that having to like someone of similar sex could be a curse upon my life,” Maphosa said.
“On many occasions, people call me names like “isithabane” and some even proclaim that I am demonic and require deliverance.
“As for me, I believe that since I am a Christian just like most people in Zimbabwe and God does not discriminate against anyone based on their physical, mental, and sexual differences.”
Speaking during yesterday’s 2023 International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) commemorations hosted by the Swedish Embassy in Harare, which were running under the theme, ‘Together always United in Diversity’, Diversity and Social Inclusion Advocate from the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) Nelson Muparamoto said issues of sexual diversity and inclusion have remained a cause for concern in the country, especially in the spheres of societal inclusion.
LGBTQI+ issues in Zimbabwe
Since 1995, the Government of Zimbabwe has carried out campaigns against LGBTIQ rights, and sodomy has been classified as unlawful sexual conduct and defined in the Criminal Code as either anal sexual intercourse or any “indecent act” between consenting adults.
Same-sex marriage has since been banned by the Zimbabwe Constitution, leaving LGBTQI+ people enjoying no legal protections from discrimination, violence, and harassment making them heavily marginalized in both the legal and social spheres.
According to a survey conducted in 2019, LGBTQI+ persons in Zimbabwe experience intimidation, stigma, and discrimination which may exclude them from society, and affect their access to public services and job opportunities.
“Numerous LGBTQI+ persons have lost their jobs, others expelled from education, find themselves homeless or being evicted once their sexual orientation has been revealed,” said Muparamoto.
“Public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ persons are generally intolerant, thus LGBTQI+ persons generally do not openly express their sexuality or gender identity in their workplaces, or within their families.”
Research has shown that despite efforts to ensure inclusivity and diversity, LGBTQI+ rights in Africa are still limited as compared to many other areas of the world.
Out of the 55 states recognised by the United Nations, homosexuality is outlawed in 34 African countries.
However, there has been some progress over the last year in the protection of LGBTQI+ rights in Africa.
LGBTQI+ anti-discrimination laws now exist in seven African countries namely; Angola, Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, and South Africa
In November 2021, the Botswana Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision to decriminalise consensual same-sex conduct. Angola’s new penal code, came into effect in January 2021 and no longer criminalises same-sex conduct.
In Zimbabwe, while the government is making positive strides, including recognising gender minorities, towards inclusive and acceptance of diverse sexuality, many institutions, and people in the society are finding it hard to accept LGBTQI+ persons.
“What we see is far from the reality, the persecution and harassment of people with diverse sexuality is a true reflection of what the society thinks and feels about homosexuality,” said Muparamoto.
“It is a sad reality that people with homosexuality are never treated as normal people which I believe is wrong.”
Interventions and the Fight against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Zimbabwe.
In an address at the same IDAHOBIT celebrations, chairperson of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) board, Angelina Chiwetani said it is remarkable that significant milestones have been made by the government, civil society and other stakeholders.
GALZ is a membership-based association that exists to promote, represent and protect the rights and interests of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people to influence positive attitudes of the broader society.
“In making sure that we address the existing inequality last year the government of Zimbabwe historically adopted the two recommendations brought forward by the LGBTIQ community to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual characters to protect intersex minors from non-consensual surgeries and violations of body integrity,” she said.
“As GALZ we make sure that we continue to protect the key groups that we duly respect.”
She said there has been also recognition of gender minorities which is evident in the National Development Strategic (NDS) 2021-2025.
Despite the positive strides, the LGBTIQ community is still exposed to severe harassment, persecution, and violence from law authorities and members of the public.
According to GALZ 2022 report, one-third of the people with LGBTIQ have been physically assaulted at some point in life. The organisation says there is a continuous high risk of people with diverse sexual orientation facing corrective rape among other things.
Research has found that there is reluctance in reporting violence against LGBTQI+ persons as a result of institutionalised homophobia.
“Moreover, phobia against the LGBTQI+ community has severe social-economic implications such as employment and housing discrimination. Most of my colleagues are just homeless and are now finding comfort in drugs,” said Chiwetani.
The Ambassador of Sweden in Zimbabwe, her excellency, Åsa Pehrson commended GALZ for its continuous fight for the rights of LGBTIQ.
“As the Swedish Embassy our foreign policy is at the core drive for democracy. For example, we focus on accountability, transparency, meaningful participation, empowerment, and non-discrimination,” she said.
The Swedish embassy in Zimbabwe has been working in partnership with GALZ towards inclusivity and recognition of sexual diversity among other initiatives.