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GYC Executive Director’s Remarks on New School LGBT Rights Panel

It was a great privilege to be able to address the panel at the New School on November 16th “Coming out in the Developing World: Involuntary Activists: Fundamentalism and LGBT Rights in East Africa”

Coming out in the Developing World:

Fundamentalism and LGBT Rights in East Africa[1]

Remarks from Jesse Hawkes, Executive Director, Global Youth Connect[2]

Panel at The New School, NY, NY

November 16 2010

As you can see, Reverend Ackerman’s presentation and the documentary film “Call me Kuchu” reveal much about the dire situation in Uganda vis a vis LGBT rights and the lack of protection of the lives of LGBT people, whether they are voluntarily living open lives or not. They are being called out in the newspapers, and the anti-homosexuality bill –whether it passes or not — has stirred up fervor, on top of laws that are already criminalizing homosexuality. As the Ugandan LGBT activist Frank Mugisha said last time I saw him here in NYC, it seems that it would actually be possible to have a genocide in Uganda of LGBT people if humanity is not vigilant in fighting against the fervor that is building there. Fundamentalism is incredibly strong there – and it is very worrisome that, as Patricia said, Ugandan papers are starting erroneously to equate homosexuality with the terrorism that blew up people at the world cup viewing in Kampala. We in the USA (and in Afghanistan and Iraq) know the consequences of stirring up fervor over terrorism. It can certainly lead to further death, torture, etc.

The situation in Rwanda, however, is very different from that of Uganda with relation to religious fundamentalism and LGBT rights in particular. Fundamentalism has been diffused in Rwanda and there is great hope in both the history and future of LGBT activism in Rwanda. It may be that the fact that Rwanda has already had a genocide is inhibiting fundamentalism from taking such fierce hold in Rwanda, but I will get to that a bit later.

Having spent six years full time in Rwanda, I am here tonight to talk about the situation in Rwanda as seen through my own personal eyes, and through the lens of the local Rwandan organizations with which I have worked in the fields of HIV-Prevention and Health as well as Human Rights, and through the eyes of some of my friends in Rwanda.

Part I: First a bit of background:

Unlike in Uganda, there has never been an officially written law against homosexuality in Rwanda.

One can research as to precisely why this is. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Rwanda was a country that was colonized by the Belgians and not by the English who of course ruled much more heavily in Uganda and imposed codes that included anti-sodomy laws.

Moreover, whenever a law has been proposed in Rwanda to criminalize homosexuality, it has come about quietly, been much less severe than the recent bill proposed in Uganda, and it has always been defeated. Moreover moreover, these proposed laws have been defeated in Rwanda not only because of international pressure, but also from local pressure. As Patricia noted, the coalition of local groups in Uganda is really forming now, but this is quite late in the game compared to the way local coalitions – rather broad coalitions – have formed in Rwanda.

Before I go further, I want to recognize that, unlike in South Africa, “there is no provision in the Rwandan law explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which does leave the door open to abuses and discrimination” This was noted in the 2009 Shadow Report Assessing Rwanda’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in regard to the treatment of LGBT individuals, which was written by both local Rwandan and international LGBT human rights activists. That report goes on to outline several cases in which people were illegally detained for being “homosexual.” Even Global Youth Connect has been involved in some research that uncovered some abuses, working with a local organization in our Human Rights Learning and Action Communities in Rwanda. Of course, none of the hopeful elements of which I am speaking are meant to overshadow any of the individual situations that deserve attention. I will return to this question throughout the presentation, especially when I speak about the activism that may take place in the future. But I would like, for the moment, to continue giving you more recent history drawing out the more hopeful story about the local activism:

In 2007, when the penal code was up for review, parliament proposed to criminalize the “promotion of same sex acts”. In 2007, when this amended penal code article was proposed, the international community took a hard stance on it and it was removed from the revisions to the penal code. The international gay and lesbian human rights commission (IGLHRC) was heavily involved in the pressure on the government and there was only a small amount of local activity that I am aware of.

In 2009 – another serious challenge in another revision of the penal code – representatives in the parliament proposed the following article 217: “Any person who practices, encourages or sensitizes people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice, shall be liable for a term of imprisonment ranging from five (5) to ten (10) years and fine ranging from Two Hundred thousand Rwanda Francs (200.000 RwF) to one million (1,000,000) Rwanda francs.” This too was defeated, but the activism aimed at its defeat was much different than in 2007 when it was primarily International pressure that brought down the article. This time there was at least as much local pressure as there was international. There was a strong local civil society coalition that was built to counteract the amended penal code article.

What did the coalition do? They held meetings to form a steering committee; they did research about the issues, crafted a Position Paper that eventually included speaking out against the penal code article that would criminalize sex workers as well[3]. They planned Journalist Mobilization – press conferences and training sessions for journalists. They received a grant from a Kenyan organization that supports the defence of sexual minorities for many of the above activities – which was administered through one leading organization, Health Development Initiative (HDI). Eventually over 40 organizations signed and the Civil Society Platform as a whole supported it.

Why did this local coalition build in 2009, and not in 2007? Several major factors in this:

  • It is my assumption (I still have to research this further) that the shadow report which had been produced earlier in the year on the ICCPR compliance vis a vis LGBT Rights through Harvard Law School gave the local organization HOCA some very strong sense of confidence and more visibility in Rwanda, especially among the organizations that worked with Human Rights Watch and on Human Rights in General, and with the embassies which had been periodically funding some of HOCA’s activities. HOCA’s leader, who had been living in Uganda and who had yet to actually incorporate HOCA officially in Rwanda out of fear, started to return to Rwanda more frequently and to make more connections to members of the LGBT community (admitting them as members of HOCA). Some of these new members were coincidentally my friends.
  • Interestingly enough, the organization for which I work, Global Youth Connect, played a role through our human rights workshops and networking activities. Just after the Shadow Report was published and many of my friends started to coincidentally join HOCA as members, I brought the idea of working with HOCA on our upcoming Human Rights learning and action community to our local partner organization, AJPRODHO – which agreed to do this as they had worked with HOCA on the shadow report or had started to talk to them about some of their grievances. HOCA joined out Learning community as an official partner. Later AJPRODHO said that the interactions with HOCA during the workshop, and the research that GYC had done with HOCA (about abuses of its members), were very influential in creating a good feeling of possibility to counteract the law in Rwanda. AJPRODHO was initially the lead organization on the 2009 Coalition Against the Law. They eventually did not sign it, but that was not due to the lack of commitment from its executive secretary and key staff, who continued to advocate for this and help the coalition.
  • Civil society orgs, especially in the Health Sector, were emboldened by some examples of government commitment and government political will:
    • In July 2009, the government revealed that it had rather surreptitiously sanctioned a study of men who have sex with men, led by the National AIDS Control Commission (CNLS) of Rwanda. A study was released, focusing particularly on sexual health and HIV risk behaviours. According to one of the volunteers who was working with GYC at the time and who went to the release function of the study, it also provided a limited quantitative analysis of survey participants who reported experiencing discrimination, abused or felt stigma regarding their sexual orientation. It is important to note that the Commission Against HIV AIDS was a president’s commission when it was originally founded and its Executive Secretary was one step away from the president’s cabinet all the time. This indicated that there was, indeed, political will of the highest order in Rwanda on this issue.
  • Journalists had already been publishing stories that were favorable to LGBT issues – some editorials and even favorable news pieces — Of course the journalists had also been publishing news about the conservative Christian leadership publicly denouncing homosexuality in Rwanda – for example Archbishop Kolini’s statement that homosexuality was a “moral genocide.”[4] But even though there are some instances of religious leaders making insensitive comments, all of this is on a much lesser scale than in Uganda and certainly there were fewer societal and media abuses of LGBT people in Rwanda as there were/are in Uganda.

Skeptics might try to diminish what these emboldened local activists had done by noting the fact that, after the announcement that the article had been dropped, the Minister of Justice publicly denied in 2009 that any article had ever even been proposed! Critics might say that this shows the Rwandan government is not serious about LGBT rights. But to be fair, the Minister contextualized this by saying that the Rwandan government will never discriminate based on sexual orientation, and I see his denial about the penal code provision as an obvious and perhaps somewhat necessary farce/show, which was meant to save face with traditionalists in Rwanda. I have no strong research to back this up, but it must be part of the case. The other reason of course is to say that Rwanda is willing only to go “so far” but that activists need to be prepared to stop acting out for further protective legislation – at least not now. Again, this is mainly for traditionalists, and for fundamentalists, to keep their money and support! [5]

I see what they were doing as part of a larger tempering of fundamentalism in Rwanda. Fundamentalism is being tempered in Rwanda not only as it pertains to LGBT rights, but also in other areas as well. I know it has been counteracted by the government as it relates to Condom Promotion. In Uganda, it’s my understanding that George Bush’s HIV/AIDS money seriously reversed the positive advances that that country had made in promoting condoms as part of the ABC plan, but in Rwanda, even though there is much George Bush money coming in for HIV/AIDS, and even though there are foreign pastors and evangelical groups that are operating in Rwanda, such as Rick Warren, there are government steering committees on Condom Distribution, and the government mobilized religious leaders to accept the use of condoms, and there is widespread effort to promote them. The government had the money. It didn’t have to do progressive things with it to get more. In fact the progressive thing was contrary to the money’s source.

PART II: Background — Focus on Rwandan Culture and the Genocide

Before going to talk about the Activism in the future. I would like to pause for a moment to talk about some of the other issues that we have failed to talk about in terms of what emboldened the activists in 2009.

Before doing that I would like to tell some other stories that will give you even more aspects of Rwanda’s landscape, stories that can show a bit more about why I think Rwanda has been able to defuse fundamentalism and embrace certain levels of activism at the legislative level, and even to offer more by way of services to the LGBT community.


This is a story though from my anonymous gay male Rwandan friend who lives in Kigali, let’s call him Louis just because that is a name that I rarely hear in Rwanda:

Louis was living with a man in his house. This man was his lover and someone whom he thought would turn out to be a long term partner.

One time Louis came home to find that all of his prized possessions had been stolen and that there was a note from the lover on the bed which said that if Louis were to go to the police he would find out that the police already have in their possession a letter from the lover describing to the police everything that Louis had “done to” the lover – a letter claiming that Louis had taken advantage of their friendship, forcing him into compromising sexual encounters.

After some deliberation, and knowing that it is not illegal for people of the same sex to have intercourse in Rwanda, Louis decided that he was not going to allow this lover to blackmail him into shutting up about the stolen equipment. Louis went to the police armed with the blackmail note from the home and with the idea of addressing the matter in a straightforward and open manner with the police, some of whom he knew from the community, and whom he felt probably knew that he was different.

Louis learned that indeed there had been a letter delivered to the police by the lover.

However, Louis found that the police had had no intention of acting on the letter, that they knew that same sex romance was not illegal in Rwanda, and that this man was no doubt just using this as something to blackmail Louis into shutting up about something else.

Louis was very pleased at this and to see that the police were willing to look at his home and file a report about the theft and to pursue the lover, catching him eventually and putting him on trial for theft and bribery.

Before I tell the next story, I am curious to know (maybe by a show of hands) how many of you are at all surprised at all by this story? [At the New School about 20 out of 50 people in the audience raised their hands.]


Let’s start with a bit of Rwandan love music. This one is by one of the leading youthful musicians in Rwanda today named Meddy. The song is called “Do you see me?” but it has nothing directly to do with LGBT issues, and is basically about a boy yearning for his girlfriend. But I think by playing it here, it might help you at least position yourself in the country, and start to get a sense of some of the cultural factors at play.

[Start song]

It is very common to see men dancing with men very closely and (to my eye) sensuously to songs like this one, and women dancing with women too in the same sensuous way, although I sense that it is more frequently the men who have this contact. These men are for the most part, thinking that later that night they might be going home with one of the women in the room or they are dancing with their male friends because they do not want to be paying for drinks for the women who are very often sex workers. In any case, there is a closeness between people of the same sex in Rwanda that is undeniable, and this is true not just in the dancehall but also outside – though this story is about the heightened level of this contact in the dance hall. One time, I saw that there were two men dancing who didn’t seem to know each other personally, even though they were dancing very closely, as if one had come up upon the other and danced with him spontaneously, which is also common. The one who had started the dance, after a moment or so, started to kiss the other one on the lips, which is virtually unseen or unheard of in Rwanda, and notably the man who was receiving the kiss, did just that, he received it. He let the other man kiss him just for a second before he pulled away from it. He didn’t push him or treat him poorly and respectfully declined to continue.

One side note about this song and dance: Since I started going to Rwanda, the airwaves have opened up to more than one radio station, and with this the blossoming of young pop stars and songwriters has occurred. When I first went to Rwanda the majority of all of the pop style songs that I saw youth participating in high school were primarily evangelical songs, or at least songs about God. But now that the airwaves have opened up you can see that the majority are about love and relationships, some even about human rights – when GYC did a delegation to Rwanda in summer 2008, some of the delegates wrote a hip-hop song about human rights and there are others too on the airwaves. But harkening back to this song and dance: it is very possible that the song that these two men had been dancing to, sounded very much like this one, but was actually about God or Jesus. Please draw your own conclusions about that.

Another thing to note about this song and dance, and the kiss, is that no one around, who had noticed the kiss, paid much attention to it or reacted harshly. I have also seen the most vibrantly effeminate men in Kigali go to the dance club and dance similarly with men, and not be treated poorly.

Neither of these two stories are told to say that there are no instances of discrimination and abuse of people who identify as LGBTI in Rwanda. For there are for sure abuses. But I want to begin with these two, with this youthful song of yearning and with this hopeful story about the police, because there are many aspects of Rwanda’s recent past that are more hopeful than many people might think vis a vis the LGBT rights situation, not just legislatively.

VIGNETTE #3: The third story will highlight some of the abuses but also some of the avenues for further action and progress in Rwanda.

In 2009, as I noted before, GYC volunteers participated in the documentation of some abuses of LGBTI individuals in Rwanda, while working with the association known as HOCA. One of the abuses was a case where two lesbians reported that a local radio station had broadcast their sexual orientation and described them to the community so that they could be chastised for their “behavior”. HOCA was to take this information and act upon it, and was indeed sharing this with international groups, and potentially local groups as well. In Summer 2010, GYC’s human rights learning and action community (youth from Rwanda and USA) went to visit the Media High Council Executive Secretary, who spoke to us about the relationship between the Media and human rights in Rwanda. Executive Secretary stated that the MHC has put in place a law, which, if observed, can protect against abuses, such as requiring that radio stations not broadcast hate and divisionism and that they also record all of their broadcasts and keep them on file. While in the meeting we raised this other issue that had been brought to our attention in 2009, about the two lesbians, and asked the Executive Secretary if something could be done. Even though he himself, like the other people whom I spoke of earlier, said he wasn’t entirely sure if being gay was legal or not in Rwanda, he did insist that there should never have been any such broadcast against these lesbians and that we should ask the people to follow-up with him if they would like to, even though the stations in early 2009 were not recording as the law had yet to be passed so there would have been no way to prove this at this time.

There seemed to be evidence that the MHC was interested in following-up on the problem, and nipping it in the bud. Even though at least initially he said that he was not sure if homosexuality was legal or illegal in Rwanda, maybe he was just talking about marriage when he said he was not sure if being gay was illegal.

In fact, if you went to Rwanda and asked people on the street if homosexuality is illegal, you might find that most people would tell you yes it is illegal, but the reason why they say that is because they are conflating homosexuality with gay marriage. Even if this is intentional (i.e. they think that it is PC to say homosexuality is illegal when they know that it is not), when pressed, many people with whom I have spoken are able to pooh-pooh the suggestion that gay people themselves should be stoned or burned for what they do in their “private lives”, and they are just referring to the marriage issue as being illegal. There is a tempering of emotions related to this issue.

The MHC Executive certainly publicly noted that he was committed to getting to the root of this discrimination. There was something clear about that commitment that we have also seen in other meetings and discussions, with the National Human Rights Commission, with local NGOs too of course, and even with the National Public Prosecution Authority (Prosecutor General).

I am just going to let those VIGNETTES sit with you as I proceed.


Rwandan culture has existed for hundreds of years in this relatively small area, uniting people across class and so-called ethnic lines into a state, before colonialism came into play. Even when colonialism did come into play, it was less controlling in many ways of culture as it was just of who had control of the society. The culture remained constant. There were small differences at the weddings of Hutus or Tutsis (as to whether you brought your Hoe or your Cow-stick), but the culture was revered by all. And Rwandan culture is a huge part of the Rwandan government’s agenda. The practice of Umuganda, the Itorero Schools, the Gacaca process, etc. Some cynics might claim that Rwanda’s widespread use of its culture in its current legislation and society is just for show, so as to cover up the divisions that exist there today. I don’t buy this. Find other examples of a cover-up and critique (like “that judge at the gacaca was corrupt”), but not in the love of culture, which is very very strong in Rwanda, and which cuts across class and so-called ethnic lines.

Side Note/VIGNETTE about the Strength of Rwandan Culture: I remember this summer when we were at a village of Batwa and, in the ceremony associated with our visit, the women started to bicker about something, and they simply would not stop, until my Rwandan colleague turned to me and said, we have to start getting them to dance and then they will quiet down. We started the clapping and the women danced and smiled and then they were able to solve their problem afterwards – whatever it was. I turned to one of our US delegates who was very interested in the relationship between Music and Conflict Resolution and I shared a knowing smile! Incidentally, the dancing of these women is the form of dance that is at the foundation of Rwanda’s traditional dance. The batwa are the root of it. Rwandan culture combines not just Tutsi history, but also the history of the people who were in Rwanda before the Tutsi arrived. And today, it is something that is clearly more of a positive than a negative.

It may be that Rwandan culture is one that welcomes aspects of sexual and gender diversity – in part because of what it denies. It denies talk of all sex in public essentially.[6] What is private is private (and people don’t ask) and what is publicly sexual is unacceptable, especially for men and women in heterosexual relations. Based on some historical readings, there may even be some tolerance of people who were known to be different (“bisexual” or “gay” in modern language), but I don’t think this is very surprising nor very different from many cultures, including that of Uganda. It may be more present in Rwanda, that is true, but it is not as if there were ever specific categories of people who were different (according to my limited knowledge).

Even though there is great reticence about sexuality in public, there is also a great cultural appreciation for sex that happens in private, for the pleasure between a man and a woman. I am not going to go into many details here, but this is well known in Rwanda. There are specific sexual positions that are revered, and there is a sense that culturally, Rwanda is awake romantically (at least as it pertains to private sex life). I cannot speak in much more detail about this, but it is perhaps something to pay attention to in relation to this issue of respecting what happens between people in private, not feeling that it is taboo because it is evil, but feeling that it is taboo because it is so wonderful, and so distracting from public life if it is let out of the bag.

Now I have outlined many things here, some of which are related and some which are disparate, but they are all focused on one basic fact. Despite the onslaught of Christian fundamentalism in the 2000s, Rwanda kept its head above water on this issue (as well as others), choosing to continue to honor its culture as opposed to the influx of behavioral “Nazism” of the Christian Fundamentalists. In relation to LGBT issues, I suspect that Rwanda’s particular culture certainly is playing a role in keeping such conservatives at bay, but why this is the case, and not the case in Uganda might also have to do with another factor to which I alluded at the beginning, namely the Rwandan genocide.

The specific historical context is also very key, not just due to an absence of anti-sodomy laws (which the English instituted in Uganda) but also due to the trauma of the Genocide and the mindset that has come from that in Rwanda.

I started this discussion of fundamentalism by talking about how in Uganda there is currently a risk of a Genocide, but another very important thing about Rwanda’s situation is that it already experienced a Genocide. Civil war also must be mentioned, but Genocide is a particularly traumatic thing that needs to be noted specifically as well. The trauma of the 1990s in Rwanda, but specifically the Genocide itself, no matter which side people were on, or whether they happened to be outside of the country at the time, was so great that the country and its citizens may have a very different ability at this time to stomach emotional fanaticism. This might be one reason why there is less public campaigning against homosexuality. Legislatively and socially, there was a sea-change in Rwanda in terms of outlawing divisionism and any negative usage of the terms “tutsi” and “hutu” and “batwa”.[7]

In addition, the genocide might be one reason why Rwandan society has been slower to see a vocal gay population, which no doubt has played a factor in there not being such a backlash against it. Reason for this? I am speculating here: In Uganda, there were many more clubs and bars where gay people could congregate even though there were anti sodomy laws. It was a much more developed place, exposed to various ideas from outside of Uganda and the freedom that comes with economic development in the city of Kampala. This has been slower in Rwanda, and I think somewhat due to the Genocide, and while development is starting to happen now, there is evidence the even the activists working in favor of LGBT rights are willing to not take the plunge that Ugandan homosexuals took in raising their voices too loud. This last point pertains to the next part of this presentation about the activists themselves and where they currently stand and what the prospects are for the future.

Part III: Current Situation of LGBT Activism in Rwanda:

Today I see two main groups in Rwanda of “activists” working on LGBT issues. There may even be three groups, and many of these people might not consider themselves to be activists, especially the third group, but for now, let’s talk about two main tracks or groups of activists.

The “Publicly Campaign Only When Absolutely Necessary” Group:

On the right you have groups that are willing to work on LGBT issues openly, and to take on an activist role – such as in the fight against the penal code article in 2009 — but they largely come from the health and social services perspective, and are today mainly focused on offering Services for LGBT people, rather than focusing on leading a campaign to pass legislation that would overtly protect LGBT people in Rwanda. They would like to wait and see how necessary such a law would be once the service providers have a better understanding of how important it is to be able to address LGBT issues in their work. In 2009, this group was willing to compromise some aspects of what we in the states might call “political correctness,” as they welcomed the idea of combining the fight against the criminalization of homosexuality and the fight against the criminalization of commercial sex work. Today they are concentrating more on Services for LGBTI people (like Doctors, Teachers) more so than public advocacy for them now that the penal code article was removed. And they continue to be active in trying to overturn the legislation in the penal code that did in fact pass and that is currently criminalizing commercial sex work in Rwanda. One could argue that these service providers and human rights workers are minimalists. Some might even call them pragmatists.

The Push for Legislative Protections Group:

On the left side of the spectrum, you have groups that feel that public awareness campaigns and visibility are highly important, that focusing on the raising awareness about the negative aspects of the situation for LGBTI people in Rwanda is the best approach to changing their situation for the better, and that being open in public today is a fact of modern existence that need not be questioned. They claim “The Rwandan government has also contributed a lot towards homophobic attacks, by failing to put strict laws defending our existence.” In 2009, these groups (really it is one local association called HOCA) disliked the idea that the position paper that was finally written combined the the fight against the criminalization of homosexuality and the fight against the criminalization of commercial sex work.

Currently, there is some potential antagonism between these groups. A recently posted article by HOCA’s leader actually denies that there have been efforts made by the government to include LGBT groups in their health programs. But because I have not spoken to both parties about it, I won’t comment on why they said this or how the other side will react (except that some people on the Services side feel that it is an incorrect statement that needs to be corrected).

I am hopeful that they will work together for what is best for LGBT people in Rwanda, because in 2009 it was clear that they worked well together despite their differences. The activism split in 2009 on the issue of whether to fight against not just the article outlawing homosexuality, but also the article outlawing sex workers. So that they could all sign on the dotted line, there were efforts by the health NGO community to come to some agreement with HCOA, the association with the most vocal LGBT members in the country, and which wanted to fight against solely the LGBT aricle. HOCA ultimately refused to sign, even if the petition included something that said: LGBTI people are not by definition sex workers, and sex workers are not by definition LGBTI people. (See Annex)

However, even though they ultimately failed to get the signatures from all sides, ultimately all of the efforts of the coalition continued to be supported by HOCA’s members. They lent their hand to the coalition despite their legitimate concerns. Members from HOCA spoke openly about being lesbians at the event with the journalists even after they publicly said HOCA would not sign the petition. Later, when HOCA held its own press conference to talk to journalists about what it means to be LGBTI, members of the civil society coalition were in attendance. I was in one of the offices of one of the coalition’s initial members, AJPRODHO, when the call came through that the article had been taken out of the penal code, and there was great exuberance. The interesting, hopeful, irony here is that this AJPRODHO had not even signed the letter, because its president had said no, but its staff had remained involved in the fight.

My main observation is that the bifurcated activists learned to come together in the end and that this made an impact and that with patience, which is a key Rwandan cultural virtue, the groups will work together for the betterment of all.

Now, I did say that I thought there could be 3 groups of so-called “activists”, and that is because there are some people in the services community who even believe that the activism that took place in 2009 had nothing to do with the government changing its mind. And they think that it was just by chance that the meetings with journalists and other open forums on LGBT rights did not rev-up the fundamentalists sentiments more in Rwanda. they think that there is no place for public activism in rwanda, not even to fight criminalization articles.

I am going to assume, even if they are partially correct, and even if the activism was not the only issue that made the article disappear, that the coalition of local organizations figured into the thinking in some way of the people, or person?, who made the final decision about taking the article out of the penal code revision.

What is the role of Global Youth Connect in all of this? I think we are going to continue to work with Rwandan partners who care about these issues, and listen to those partners, and do our best, should they wish to have dialogue, to facilitate dialogue between groups that may not see things in the same way, including the issue of strategy. We believe in dialogue, and we believe that cross cultural groups of committed young people are very good or encouraging dialogue. So this is where we will continue to focus. Perhaps we will bring these groups into dialogue with one another during the next “Global Youth Connect” Learning and Action Community in Rwanda in January.


Panel Announcement:

Coming Out in the Developing World –
Involuntary Activists – Fundamentalism and LGBT Rights in East Africa
Tuesday, November 16 – 6:00PM – Reception to follow
The New School – 66 W. 12th Street @ 6th Avenue – Room 510

In the Fall of 2009, an “Anti-Homosexuality” bill was proposed in the Ugandan legislature. Itself a response to a presentation from American Christian fundamentalists, the bill sparked an international outcry as it threatened lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and their family members, with harassment, imprisonment and even death.

“Involuntary Activists: Fundamentalism and LGBT Rights in East Africa” is the second event in the Global Studies year long Coming Out in the Developing World lecture and event series. With a focus on the experiences of LGBT communities in East Africa, the panel discussion will address the diverse influences, including religious extremism, behind anti-gay legislation throughout the region and the extent to which homosexuality will be an issue in upcoming elections. Panelists will also discuss how the push for such laws has been tempered by increased human rights activism at the local level and the ways in which transnational advocacy organizations and Western activists can best respond. The panel will be preceded by groundbreaking documentary film footage featuring activists involved in the gay and lesbian movement in Uganda.

Speakers include – Reverend Patricia Ackerman, Unitarian Universalist Church; Jesse Hawkes, Executive Director and Rwanda Program Director, Global Youth Connect; and Nick Mwaluko, Columbia University. The panel will be moderated by Dechen Albero, Global Studies Program Coordinator, The NewSchool. Documentary film footage provided by Malika Zouhall-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, Directors, “Call Me Kuchu.”

Co-sponsored by the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Order of Speakers:

  1. Patricia Ackerman
  2. Jesse Hawkes
  3. Nick Mwaluko

ANNEX: 2010 Position Paper[8]

Executive Summary, Submitted to Parliament by the Civil Society Coalition for the Protection of Sexual Minorities



November 2009


Table of Contents:


Introduction                                                                                                                                      p. 3


Analysis of Article 217                                                                                                   p. 4


Conclusion and Recommendation Concerning Article 217                                            p. 7


Analysis of Article 221                                                                                                   p. 8


Conclusion and Recommendation Concerning Article 221                                            p. 10


Position Paper Final Conclusion                                                                                               p. 11





A progressive post-genocide leadership has been at the drive of enacting laws and policies at national and local levels that are people-centred, home-made, inclusive and participatory, to ensure that they address underlying challenges and improve the wellbeing of all Rwandans.

Innovative policies that include: the Vision 2020, the EDPRS, the Decentralisation, Gender, health and education policies among others have been developed. Reforms, such as the judicial reform, the enactment of a set of legislations including; the Land law, Succession law, Gender Based Violence law, People with disabilities law, Child rights Law, the anti-genocide law, anti-genocide ideology law, anti-sectarianism and discrimination law, etc., and most important yet, the adoption of a human rights friendly constitution that safeguards fundamental rights, guarantees and promotes the social, economic and political development of Rwandans. The revision of the penal code is one of such reformative initiative and we applaud the commitment of the government of Rwanda to continue with such reform processes.

However, within that revision, the formulation of articles 217 and 221 in the draft penal code pose great concerns. These articles are contradictory to the Rwandan Constitution, a violation of human rights and gender equality, a hindrance to the implementation of the Rwanda National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009-2012. Furthermore, article 217 and 221 are withdrawing government’s responsibility and accountability to provide social protection to its citizens. In addition, the articles are a setback to the government’s commitment to national unity, tolerance, inclusiveness, dialogue, social cohesion and security among Rwandan citizens and residents.


NOTE: This position paper is dealing with two minority groups, and the two articles in the penal code that refer to each group separately. We treat these two articles/groups at the same time in this position paper because they share similar health consequences, as stipulated by the Rwandan Government through the CNLS. Nevertheless, they are different groups and have differing human rights concerns which are outlined in this paper as well. We emphatically acknowledge that LGBTI people are not by definition sex workers, and sex workers are not by definition LGBTI people.



Part 1. Analysis of Article 217 of the Draft Penal Code

Article 217 provides that: “Any person who practices, encourages or sensitizes people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice, shall be liable for a term of imprisonment ranging from five (5) to ten (10) years and fine ranging from Two Hundred thousand Rwanda Francs (200.000 RwF) to one million (1,000,000)Rwanda francs.”

This article is referring to LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) individuals/communities and their supporters. LGBTI individuals are defined below. They are a minority who engage in loving relationships with individuals of their same biological sex.

Definition of LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex)[9]:

Lesbian (L) In this context, lesbian refers to women with a sexual orientation towards women only

Gay (G) In this context, gay refers specifically to men with a sexual orientation towards men only;

Bisexual (B) Bisexual refers to persons who are attracted to both men and women

Transgender (T) Transgender is generally used to describe a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups centered around the full or partial reversal of gender roles as well as physical sexual reassignment therapies (which can be just hormonal or involve various degrees of surgical alteration). A common definition is “People who feel that the gender they were assigned (usually at birth) is a false or incomplete description of themselves.” Included in this definition are a number of well known sub-categories such as transsexual, transvestite and sometimes genderqueers.

Intersex (I) Intersex refers to individuals with ambiguous or mismatching sexual characteristics (including levels of sex hormones).

Being homosexual is not a choice. It is a biological trait according to numerous scientists around the world, including world renowned, Harvard socio-biologist E.O. Wilson.[10] Homosexuals are humans and citizens and the law should protect them.

LGBTI individuals are frequent subjects of human rights abuses. In Rwanda, several studies, including those carried-out by the Rwandan AIDS Control Commission[11] have established the existence of Rwandan LGBTI individuals within the community. The same studies highlighted incidences of violence to which these groups are subjected on a daily basis. Research conducted by CNLS states that 20% of LGBTI respondents reported being mistreated due to their sexuality or sexual behaviour, with 12 men reporting physical abuse, and 15 men reporting verbal abuse[12]. The acts of violence are perpetrated by members of the larger community, including law enforcement officers. These studies also recommended that measures are put in place to protect the LGBTI community from violence and enable them to access treatment, including anti-retroviral.


Legal, human rights, psychosocial and health impact of Article 217


Article 217 is contrary to human rights as articulated in the Rwandan Constitution and in international human rights instruments to which Rwanda is signatory. Specifically, Article 217 violates the following rights, protected by the Rwandan Constitution, International Conventions, Treaties and other human rights standards and instruments to which Rwanda is a party:

  • The Right to be respected, protected and defended by the administration from violation[13]
  • The right of an individual or a group to be protected against any attempt to discrimination on any basis[14]
  • The right of all peoples to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development[15].
  • The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health[16].
    1. The prevention, treatment and control epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;
    2. The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.
  • The right to freedom, dignity, equality before the law, the right of enjoyment, without any discrimination of equal protection of the law[17].
  • The Right to private life, family, home or correspondence of a person from arbitrary interference; Respect of his or her honour[18] and good reputation[19].

If promulgated, this article will have two strikingly negative outcomes. Firstly, it will make any homosexual individual illegal, thereby rendering all LGBTI individuals criminals, subject to punishment by an extensive jail term and substantial fine. Secondly, article 217 if promulgated, would sponsor discrimination, stigmatisation and exposure to violence against LGBTI.

Inconsistencies of article 217 with the Rwanda National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009-2012:


The Rwandan National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS has identified Men having Sex with Men (MSM) and Women having Sex with Women (WSW) as key target group for its HIV and AIDS prevention and anti-retroviral care services. In other words, the LGBTI community is referred to as one of the “groups at high risk” in Rwanda by the Rwandan National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009-2012. Infections among LGBTI are likely to contribute disproportionately to total incidences based on their population size, HIV prevalence, and sexual interactions with the general public. In other words, HIV prevalence among the LGBTIs is not only a threat to themselves, but a threat to the larger Rwandan society as 30% of LGBTI groups engage in sexual intercourse with hetero-sexual individuals.

The services the NSP aims to provide the LGBTI community include, among other things, the provision of condoms and femidoms to people in detention, where HIV prevalence is at 15%, running MSM peer sensitisation and specific prevention messages, and voluntary counselling and testing for MSM and WSW. This strategy protects both LGBTI groups and other members of the Rwandan community from internal and cross-cutting propagation of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The National AIDS response commission has demonstrated that recognising the existence of MSM within the Rwandan community, protecting them, raising public awareness and fighting stigma against them are key pillars in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Rwanda. The following are comprehensive prevention programmes planned in the National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS, targeting LGBTI as a vulnerable and most at risk group through:


  • Peer education programs, involving training about prevention among MSM, provision of information on HIV and STIs, referral for HIV testing, condom promotion and STI diagnosis;
  • Extension of testing, HIV and sexual health services to MSM;
  • A specific activity to ensure access to condoms and water-based lubricant for men who have sex with men;
  • Outreach for men who have sex with men through peer education programs including provision of information on HIV and STIs, referral for HIV testing and STI diagnosis;
  • Addressing sex between men in general, and within prisons, is a new area of work; and
  • Operational research and an emphasis on ensuring MSM are active in the design and implementation of prevention programs to ensure that they are carried out in the most appropriate way

This strategy protects both LGBTI groups and other members of the Rwandan community from internal and cross-cutting propagation of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.




Conclusive Analysis of Article 217:

If Article 217 of the Draft Penal Code is passed, the preventative strategies and activities promoted by the Ministry of Health and the CNLS and their civil society partners would be qualified as crimes. In addition, article 217 would sponsor discrimination, stigmatisation and violence against LGBTI. The content of article 217 would only worsen the situation of LGBTI individuals and their supporters in the country.


Conclusive Recommendation Concerning Article 217:

  • Given that Article 217 is contrary to human rights as articulated in the Rwandan Constitution and in international human rights instruments to which Rwanda is signatory, and
  • Given that article 217 would frustrate measures to provide health services for all; and
  • Given that article 217 will sponsor discrimination, stigmatisation and violence against LGBTI and their supporters in the country;
  • We recommend that, you, the Rwandan Parliament not adopt article 217 from the Draft Penal Code and continue to support the postitive measures already set forth by the Government of Rwanda to reach out to the LGBTI community through its National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009 – 2012.

Part II: Analysis of Article 221

Article 221 provides that: “Any person who practices the profession of prostitution, shall be liable for a term of imprisonment ranging from six (6) month to three (3) years and a fine ranging from fifty thousand to five hundred thousand Rwanda Francs (500.000 RWF) or one of the two sentences only.

However the court may rule that, within a period not exceeding one year, he or she observes one or most of the following:

Not cross boundaries set by the court;

  1. Not to approach locations that have been indicated by the court;
  2. being subjected to surveillance;
  3. being treated and being placed in a hospital
  4. Report regularly to work locations or to authorities determined by the court.


Disregarding one of the rulings is punishable by imprisonment from three (3) month to six (6) month. The sentences stipulated in the first paragraph of this article are applicable for everyone who engage into sexual relations with a prostitute”

This article refers to sex workers. A sex worker is an individual who engages in the exchange of sex for a living, due to his or her unfortunate socio-economic situation, not biological background.

Legal, human rights, psychosocial and health impact of Article 221

Sex workers are a direct consequence of social-economic realities within our community. Many engage in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children. Others are victims of illiteracy, or unemployment, and a few are involved as a result of the genocide in one way or the other. Sex workers are daily targets of drunk, violent, and abusive clients who treat them as objects and subject them to humiliating and inhuman treatments. On top of that, they have to deal with social disdain, demeanment and stigma. Those treatments render them vulnerable and weak persons, unable to scale up their social status. Instead they are traumatised and desperate and it becomes extremely difficult for them to take responsible decisions or impose them to men, especially as regards contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention.

The content of article 221 is contrary to human rights as articulated in the Rwandan Constitution and in international human rights instruments to which Rwanda is signatory. Specifically, Article 221 violates the following rights, protected by the Rwandan Constitution, International Conventions, Treaties and other human rights standards and instruments to which Rwanda is a party:

  • The Right to be respected, protected and defended by the administration from violation[20]
  • The right of an individual or a group to be protected against any attempt to discrimination on any basis[21]
  • The right of all peoples to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development[22].
  • The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health[23].
    1. The prevention, treatment and control epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;
    2. The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.

Inconsistencies of article 221 with the Rwanda National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009-2012:

We, as a country, in our National Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS 2009 – 2012, are envisioning continued efforts to reach out to sex workers with sensitisation, HIV prevention, impact mitigation, care and treatment, security and social protection services.

Sex workers are referred to as “groups at high risk” by the Rwandan National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009-2012. Infections among workers are likely to contribute disproportionately to total incidences based on their population size, HIV prevalence, and sexual interactions with the general public. In other words, HIV prevalence among sex workers is not only a threat to themselves, but a threat to the larger Rwandan society as sex workers have been found to be a group with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence (19%) and the biggest drivers of the epidemic.

The National AIDS response commission has recommended the following comprehensive prevention programmes in the National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS, targeting sex workers as a vulnerable and most at risk group through:


  • Strengthening Peer Education training and provision of information on HIV, STIs, promotion of condoms,

   life skills, referrals for STI diagnosis and HIV testing, sex violence, reproductive health and PMTCT

  • IEC Materials: Developed, Adapted, harmonized and disseminated
  • Interpersonal communication/ Dialogue
  • Conduct a sex worker friendly event on HIV, STIs, condom negotiation


Conclusive Analysis of Article 221:

In Rwanda, sex workers are a direct consequence of the socio-economic dynamics of our country. They deserve protection and special care, not to be criminalized.

If this article 221 is passed into law, it will be difficult to reach sex workers and their children with services sponsored by our Ministry of Health and CNLS meant to assist sex workers in finding positive economic alternatives and health care; instead they will continue to live and practice sex work in hiding, infecting others and themselves with HIV/AIDS. Criminalizing sex workers is not the solution to fighting prostitution. If prostitutes are criminalised they will be forced to live clandestinely, but they will not disappear or abandon prostitution.



Conclusive Recommendation Concerning Article 221:

  • Given that the pragmatic way of dealing with the sex worker issue has been, and will continue to be, to identify them, gather them into cooperatives and other organized groupings for targeted treatment, vocational training and income generating activities; and
  • Given that criminalizing them would be counterproductive to achieving these outcomes; and
  • Given that article 221 is contrary to human rights as articulated in the Rwandan Constitution and in international human rights instruments to which Rwanda is signatory;
  • We recommend that you, the Rwandan Parliament, do not adopt article 221 from the Draft Penal Code and continue to support the postitive measures already set forth by the Government of Rwanda through its National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009 – 2012.




Rwanda has suffered tremendously in recent history as the result of the discrimination of one group against another. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has pledged a renewed commitment to tolerance and non-discrimination as a mechanism to guard against such atrocities ever occurring again.

Article 217 and 221 of the Draft Penal Code stand in direct contradiction with this vision for Rwanda’s present and future. The tone of the articles are explicitly intolerant and discriminatory. Such laws, if passed, would in no way contribute to the promotion of forbearance and social cohesion within Rwanda. It is in the interest of unity and tolerance for Rwanda not to allow article 217 and 221 to pass into law.

Furthermore, Rwanda has made significant advances in dealing with HIV/AIDS. One of the success stories of Rwanda has been organising and promoting prevention, impact mitigation, care and treatment for vulnerable groups and most at risk populations. The promulgation of articles 217 and 221 would undermine all measures meant to reach out and protect these two minority groups as the articles would criminalize any attempt to identify LGBTIs and sex workers, and to direct access to justice, and HIV protection actions toward them, and would halt the implementation of prevention programmes as planned by the NSP. To allow article 217 and 221 to become law is to frustrate HIV/AIDS and Health promotion initiatives. This said, these laws will only contribute to reversing all accomplishments by deterring criminalized groups from open discussion with healthcare providers, and in some cases criminalizing the health providers themselves.

Conclusive recommendations of Position Paper:

We recommend that you, the Rwandan Parliament, do not adopt articles 217 and 221 from the Draft Penal Code and continue to support the postitive measures already set forth by the Government of Rwanda through its National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS 2009 – 2012.

[1] For the Description of the Panel Itself, see the Annex

[2] Please note that these remarks have been added to since the event, but they essentially contain all that was stated at the event. Note that they were delivered prior to the Rwandan efforts at the UN to vote in favor of removing “sexual orientation” from the list of categories of special protections in the UN resolution on extrajuducial killings in November 2010. This is an example of the kind of act (also committed by the South African government) that must no doubt be considered by the Rwandan activist community. Global Youth Connect and it’s local partner organization, AJPRODHO, will ensure that this issue is present in the conversations and dialogue about LGBT rights during the upcoming Human Rights Learning and Action Community (LAC) to be held in Kigali, January 2011, and which will culminate with a dialogue session including the cross cultural grouping of youth activists, the grassroots NGOs from Rwanda involved in the LAC, and representatives from the policy making institutions with which GYC/AJPRODHO have met in the most recent years including the National Public Prosecution Authority, the Media High Council, the National Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Culture, among others – talking about LGBT rights, the rights of the Batwa communities, detained youth, and health/HIV.

[3] See Annex for a Copy of the Position Paper as it was developed.

[4] One should research whether this statement is something that the Rwandan legal system and government would find acceptable considering its awkward assertion that genocide could ever be anything but the killing of people as it is defined in the Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. There are strict rules in Rwanda for how people characterize genocide, especially the Genocide Ideology Law.

[5] Some skeptics might also say that even these local NGOs are sensing that there is money in it for them to be supportive, that LGBT rights is what is going to continue to support them as institutions. But this argument is much less applicable on a local level, where the potential financial support for LGBT initiatives was so small compared to the effort that went into galvanizing whole swaths of the local NGOs in Rwanda to counteract the proposed penal code article.

[6] It is not just with relation to sex that Rwandans are reticent in public. They rarely share things of any emotional weight with one another until they have thought them through very carefully. With the exception of some of the recent political campaigns, Kagame is a very unemotional president. His speeches, though sometimes pointed, are rarely with great passion or pomp. This is certainly part of Rwandan culture itself. The ITORERO schools were and still are all about being unemotional, of holding back, of listening very carefully before acting out. It is a way of existence, and one that they are still very proud of.

[7] It is possible that Rwanda’s youthfulness is also a factor. The harsh reality of the Genocide has led to a more youthful society. 85% of the population is below the age of 35. This doesn’t just manifest itself in the pop music but also in the government and all sectors, which may also have something to do with it becoming a more accepting and tolerant society, especially when it comes to things that demand some sense of modernity, like dealing with a family member who says that they are “gay.”

[8] The final form may not have been exactly the same – some of the remarks about the “naturalness” of homosexuality, and the distinction between LGBT people and commercial sex workers were deleted by the coalition before publishing

[9] This definition is inspired by All Experts: LGBT Encyclopaedia, available at

[10] Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978,2004, p. 145

[11] CNLS has conducted a research on Men that have sex with Men (MSM) entitled: Exploring HIV risk among MSM in Kigali, which has informed the National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS on the issues around LGBTI in Rwanda.

[12] The age range among those reporting mistreatment due to their sexuality was 18 to 29 years.

[13] Art. 10 of the Rwanda Constitution and Art.7 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[14] Article 11, of the Rwanda Constitution; Article 17, Al. 2: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

[15] Article 24: The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights

[16] Article 15 of the Rwandan Constitution; Article 12. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, Art. 16 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights

[17]Art. 16 of the Rwandan Constitution; Art. 1 and Art. 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Art. 19 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; Art.26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

[18] JURISPRUDENCE: Toonen v. Australia Case, complaint brought before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in 1994 The case resulted in the repeal of Australia’s last sodomy laws when the Committee held that sexual orientation was included in the treaty’s antidiscrimination provisions as a protected status

[19] Article 22 of the Rwandan Constitution, Article 12: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 17: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Art. 27, Fourth Geneva Convention: The Geneva Convention of 12 July 1949, and their additional Protocols I and II of July 8th 1997 are referred to in the Preamble the draft Penal Code

[20] Art. 10 of the Rwanda Constitution and Art.7 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[21] Article 11, of the Rwanda Constitution; Article 17, Al. 2: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

[22] Article 24: The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights

[23] Article 15 of the Rwandan Constitution; Article 12. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, Art. 16 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights



This entry was posted on November 20, 2010 by in GYC Board and Staff Blog Posts, Human Rights.

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