A joint session of standing committees of the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) ended last week with strong calls for MPs in the region to take bold steps to protect the health rights of all citizens.
With funding from ARASA (AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa), the SADC-PF convened the joint session under the theme: “Criminalisation and stigmatisation: disincentives to the realisation of fundamental human rights.”
The session brought together parliamentarians, editors, senior journalists and other experts to discuss broad criminalisation, as the world moves towards universal access to health.
In a no holds barred presentation during the session, Nthabiseng Mokoena, regional advocacy officer at ARASA, said parliamentarians who bury their heads in the sand and avoid taking bold decisions to protect the rights of key populations in their communities were sowing a whirlwind, because inaction on these issues might actually cost them their seats.
Mokoena spoke after several parliamentarians had said openly advocating for the rights of key populations could cost them votes given the highly polarised and controversial nature of those issues.
Zimbabwean parliamentarian Innocent Gonese said his country was one of those in which sodomy is criminalised. “In our constitution sexual orientation is not specifically covered. I think the real challenge is about societal attitudes. For politicians, even if they are enlightened, to try to speak to these issues in [their] constituency would be one sure way of ensuring that they don’t come back in the next election,” he said.
Gonese said in some instances senior political leaders adopted very uncompromising and hostile positions against members of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community, making it difficult for individual MPs “to change that policy thrust.”
Another member of parliament from Zimbabwe Dr Samson Mukanduri called for more awareness about the LGBTI community and their unique challenges, saying very little was known about key populations.
“Lesbian and gay issues are very clear, but when it comes to transsexual and intersex people, these are grey areas where we need a lot advocacy. Some of us have heard about transgender and intersex people for the first time in this joint session,” Mukanduri said, adding that talking about gays and lesbians is taboo in many rural parts of the SADC region.
South African parliamentarian Moses Masango said lawmakers should be progressive and enlightened. “As public representatives they are not representing and making laws only for people who share agendas with them. Lawmakers might even have relatives with this kind of sexual orientation. The Constitution of South Africa confers fundamental human rights on persons and not on a group,” Masango explained.
He stressed that parliamentarians represent people with varying levels of appreciation of issues, including the rights of key populations.
“We also represent very conservative, cultural and religious societies. They will continue to frown upon some of us when we talk about this issue. How does a member of parliament navigate this terrain? As a parliamentarian, one can be rejected for saying things that are not reflective of what the majority of people think,” he said.
Masango’s counterpart, veteran lawmaker Rosalia Morutoa, called for relentless education and capacity building to change perceptions.
“When I first heard of these intersex and transgender people, I thought: ‘This is the climax. I have never heard of this.’ Later I discovered that South Africa had gone a long way on these issues. As an elderly person, a mother, a women’s leader and as an activist, I know that this population did not fall from heaven. They were born by us and we have to do something,” she said.
Morutoa added: “It is nothing to laugh about. Some people think it is a new phenomenon. It is not! A lot of things made these people not to be outspoken: laws, stigma and discrimination. We are in this together!”
Namibian parliamentarian Ignatius Shixwameni said LGBTI issues were “very delicate to handle”, even at family level. “The problem is that many of us live in denial. We have to find a way of dealing with these issues. A big part of it has to do with education.
“Criminalising will not work, because people will go underground. In Africa we adopt a lot of protocols, but we get stuck when it comes to implementation. Poor implementation is Africa’s biggest undoing,” Shixwameni told fellow SADC-PF parliamentarians.
A parliamentarian from the United Republic of Tanzania said many people in his country were aware of the existence of the LGBTI community, but were not responding to their needs due to strong religious and traditional considerations.
“We know that there are LGBTI members among the youths and professionals. We might advocate about these issues if we link them up with HIV and AIDS issues. Otherwise, who will bell the cat?” Swaziland lawmaker HRH Prince Dlamini enjoined members of the LGBTI community to exercise patience and for other stakeholders to intensify advocacy around LGBTI issues.
“I understand that these are human rights issues. I’m okay with that; very much alive to the fact that people have the right to choose, but alive also to the fact that they have a right to choose in a society that may not necessarily be in tune with the subject matter that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. This is a new concept,” said Dlamini.
He added: “It would be folly of us to think that we can just rush through and cause people to change minds overnight. In my society if you want to end your career as a politician, then get into these issues. My own mother would skin me alive if she found me speaking about these issues.”
Mokoena would have none of it. In an emotional appeal for political leadership in the quest for universal access to SRHR, Mokoena challenged the region’s parliamentarians to bite the bullet, saying they, like religious leaders, wield immense power and influence.
“In South Africa every time a political or religious leader gets up and says something anti-LGBTI people, the community responds to that (with violence against the LGBTI community),” Mokoena said.
Mokoena rejected the notion that leaders are always led by their communities and stressed that MPs are leaders of their constituencies.
Noting that the world had set ambitious targets to end AIDS by 2030 and that a lot of money is being used to respond to the pandemic, Mokoena said money would continue to be lost or wasted for as long as key populations are left behind.
Mokoena challenged the region’s MPs to help remove legal barriers to universal access to health. While admitting that change takes time, Mokoena said for change to take place, somebody needs to take action urgently. “The discourse needs to start now. Somebody needs to take charge.”
Responding to suggestions that the LGBTI people should be patient because “old habits die hard” and societal attitudes take time to change, Mokoena said: “We really need to be patient when men who have sex with men are dying, because they do not have access to services? When LGBTI people are being raped and killed? How many people are supposed to die while we are patient?”
Mokoena said transgender and intersex were not new concepts. Rather they had become invisible due criminalisation. “This has been part and parcel of our communities. The only problem is that throughout history when an oppressed group stands up and demands its rights we call it a new concept.”
Mokoena had chilling news for MPs who said they were not advocating for the rights of key populations for fear of losing votes. “As much as you are scared of your constituencies, the voters are becoming younger and younger. There is a new generation of voters who are in tune with these issues. You will lose their vote if you don’t act.”
Earlier, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Seychelles Hon Dr Patrick Herminie, also urged all MPs to support harm reduction strategies in the public health sector and to reject criminalisation of the conduct of key populations.
“As a medical practitioner I know from training and experience that criminalisation has no place in public health. If anything, it is counterproductive in that it drives people underground, far from public healthcare and other services,” he said.
“I invite all of us to smell the coffee and take rational decisions to deliver universal access to all of our people, lest history judges us harshly,” he added.