Does culture preclude the right to safe sex on the continent?

By Kagure Mugo

Homosexuals are a virus.’

Bar this being poor work etiquette the inflammatory language used recently by a member of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights speaks to a larger institutional problem of how we engage with certain important rights, or rather how we do not.

On the 25th  of April 2015 the Coalition of African Lesbians was granted observer status at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights after a battle of Spartan proportions spanning seven years. This was a milestone for human rights on the continent but it was not easily won. From problematic remarks, to a violation of protocol, to a general drawing out of the process, the whole event seemed to be, for lack of a better phrase, ‘a hot mess’. As one observer pointed out, the session was ‘one of the most embarrassing in the Commission’s history’.

The eventual vote was five saying yes, two saying no and one abstention.

Even though the motion passed, one member of the commission, at one point, stated that the application should be denied as ‘Africans were not ready for this.’ The application had been denied before on the basis that Coalition For African Lesbians ‘did not promote any of the rights enshrined in the charter.’

But the question is why are we constantly ‘not ready’ to look at issues pertaining to sexuality and Sexual Reproductive and Health Rights (SRHR)? There seems to be the notion within regional rights spaces (and to some extent international rights spaces) that Africans are not ready for any forms of rights that do not have anything to do with economics, statehood and sovereignty.

Years on from independence and we are still squawking on about nationhood in multilateral forums as if this is the only thing we can completely conceptualise. The idea that other aspects of existence are worthy of serious deliberation is seemingly non-existent. This is because the appointed guardians of human rights at a regional and international level often allow their own personal bias to override whatever mandate they are supposed to serve. The need to be a guardian of ‘African culture’ overrides any other role they may need to fulfil. But this is problematic because ‘culture’ no longer allows us to function properly in the world around us.

Aside from the escalating violence against sexual minorities on the continent issues of sexual health are also cause for concern. Kenya and Uganda purportedly have the highest numbers of unsafe abortions globally. A situation made worse on the continent by the high levels of sexual violence, under-age pregnancies, child marriages, girl children still missing school because of their period and rape being used as a weapon in some war torn areas.

How is it then that culture is protecting our way of life when it causes us to be actively blind to these issues? These realities are part of our everyday. The excuse that we are ‘not ready’ for certain rights is nonsensical and frankly, a little insulting.

Yet bringing up issues of sexuality and sexual health such as abortion and basic women’s rights is avoided like the plague in some places. Organisations dealing with SRHR have to fight tooth and nail for women to have some form of agency over their own bodies. This in a world where rape is rife and single parent households (usually headed by a woman or oldest girl child) are becoming the norm on the continent.

Life is intersectional and without engaging with certain elements others cannot go forward. How can we say children are our future when some of them are unable to go to school because they are pregnant or cannot access sanitary pads? How can we talk about peace and security when a portion of the population is being actively hunted because of their sexual orientation?

We cannot keep acting as if we’re stuck in some sort of time warp while the rest of the world moves forward. Culture and tradition are meant to help us make sense of the world – not hold us hostage in it. To deny rights in the name of archaic ideas makes absolutely no sense. The context we live in has made it clear that regional bodies can no longer ignore issues such as abortion, safe sex and violence against sexual minorities as these are issues facing the majority on the continent today.

It is time for governing bodies that seek to protect our rights to actually protect these rights for everyone not just those they can ‘understand.’ The use of tradition and culture is not good enough because these things in themselves are not static and must, like anything else in the world, change and grow.

First published on This Is Africa

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