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Behind closed doors: LGBTQ+ people struggle in Cameroon's shadows

July 25, 2023
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Cameroon, #LGBTQ+, #Africa, #freedom of the press
by:Njodzeka Danhatu
As the persecution of queer people in Cameroon continues in broad day light, underground activists are fighting for change.

On 12 June, Cameroon threatened sanctions against media houses broadcasting content that exposes citizens to LGBTQ+ content. The threat was made through Cameroon's media regulatory agency, the National Communication Council (NCC), which stated that a growing number of media programmes in the country are promoting 'homosexual practices.'

"These programmes [,] usually released by foreign publishers, which usually involve ordinary series, are increasingly found in cartoons for children and minors. These are practices that offend good morals, custom, and Cameroonian legislation," NCC said. 

The regulatory agency cited articles 3 and 4 of a January 2012 decree to justify its preservation of "respect for the freedom of social communication in accordance with the constitution." 

NCC warned promoters and media practitioners that homosexuality is outlawed and condemned by Cameroonian law, and that any broadcast homosexual scenes constitute a breach of professional ethics and social communication. Media houses that continue to publish such content, NCC threatened, will face immediate sanctions.

Following NCC’s announcement, Cameroon's Ministeries of External Relations and Territorial Administration on 19 June, 2023 rejected a conference on gender, sexual orientation and sexual identity, which French Ambassador for LGBTQ+ Rights Jean-Marc Berthon had planned to hold in the nation’s capital, Yaounde.

Cameroon said the Ambassador was welcome to visit the country, but did not approve any discussion on LGBTQ+ issues, which it says contravenes the country’s values and constitution.

"The position of the Cameroon government on the definition of gender, orientation, and sexual identity is clear and devoid of any debate," said Lejeune Mbella Mbella, Cameroon's external relations minister. "It is therefore not possible to talk about LGBTQ+ people in Cameroon. The fact is thus qualified as a common law crime by article 347-1- Homosexuality of Law No2016/007 0f July 2016 on the penal code of Cameroon."

To further solidify the ban, Interior Minister Paul Atanga Nji instructed the Centre Regional Governor not to authorise any conference discussing LGBTQ+ issues.

This is not the first time that Cameroon is cracking down on the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. 

LGBTQ+ People living in fear in Cameroon

In 2021, a Douala court in Cameroon’s Littoral region jailed two trans women and fined them USD 370 for violating the anti-homosexuality law. 

The trans women, Njeuken Loic, also known as Shakiro, and Mouthe Roland, who also goes by Patricia, were each sentenced to five years in prison. 

The country’s Law and Order forces arrested and detained for dressing in women's clothes. 

The women were subsequently released from jail, but continued to face public harassment and assault. In May 2021, a video went viral on social media in which a mob in Douala beat and undressed Shakiro. The perpetrators were never arrested.

Meanwhile, in April this year, a University of Buea student in Cameroon’s South West City of Buea was severely beaten after rumors had spread that he was gay.  The student had gone to visit a friend and was attacked by irate youths who suspected he had engaged in 'homosexual activities.'  

Aside from the public's mistreatment of queer people, Cameroon’s security officials are making their lives even more unbearable. The Cameroonian police stated that many youths believe that 'becoming' LGBTQ+ will make them wealthy, adding that it shuttered Yaounde bars that were popular among the queer community. 

In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported a rise in violence against LGBTQ+ people in Cameroon. It cited a report from the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), which recorded "32 cases of violence and abuse against LGBTI people across the country - an increase of 88 percent from the same period in 2021."

In 2021 alone, over 100 people in Cameroon were arrested and 40 were jailed on sexual orientation-related grounds. The number keeps increasing, with HRW stating that security forces in Cameroon are failing to protect LGBTQ+ people from violent attacks and instead are arresting the victims.

Activists fight for LGBTQ+ protections

Nfomi Laura Berka, a civil society activist and human rights advocat, is co-executive director of the Community Centre for Integrated Development (CCID), a Buea-based human rights NGO. 

When Berka learned of the ban the government issued on LGBTQ+ content, she was worried. She could not understand why the government would crack down on people simply because of their gender and sexual orientation.

She told FairPlanet that the preamble of Cameroon’s constitution recognises the 1948 United Nations joint Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other treaties which Cameroon has ratified that call for the protection of rights. The LGBTQ+ crackdown, according, to Berka "is a violation of human rights."

"I am saying this because Cameroon said it has taken its duty to respect and fulfill and protect all individuals - and the LGBTQI communities are people," She said. 

Commenting on the authorities' claims that same-sex intimacy and gender-bending practices violate Cameroon's values and culture, Berka said that it is not the role of the government to determine what people should do in their private spaces. 

"People should be allowed to freely express themselves regardless of culture and free from discrimination and cohesion," she said. "I think that we are just moving backward from the development agenda. We cannot be talking about development, equality [and] equal opportunities without addressing these kinds of issues."

To her, LGBTQ+ people should be recognised by, first of all, decriminalising homosexuality, as it contravenes articles 3 and 4 of the penal code. 

Other human rights defenders, such as barrister Alice Nkom, who played a key role in securing the release of jailed queer people in Cameroon, believe international pressure is needed in order to push Cameroon to ease its crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community.

"The United States is one of Cameroon's main development partners and has the power to ask the authorities to loosen the legal stranglehold on homosexuals," Nkom told France 24 in 2021.

But governmental bans and public hostility make it very difficult for human rights advocates in Cameroon to openly discuss LGBTQ+ issues. All the while the government has allowed people in the media to make threatening messages against queer people.

Homosexuality is also regarded as 'occultism' by some Cameroonians who claim to not understand why and how people of the same sex could have sexual or romantic feelings for each other.

FairPlanet contacted four human rights activists in Buea, Southwest Cameroon, who they said they cannot comment on the subject. Some of them told FairPlanet that by commenting on the issue they risk having the public conflate their personal position on LGBTQ+ rights with their actual gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Some of the human rights advocates contacted by FairPlanet said that homosexuality should not be tolerated.

Sally Ndape, a prominent human rights defender in Cameroon, said that although homosexuality shouldn’t be promoted because of Africa's cultural heritage, the rights of persons who identify as such should be respected.

"Every human being has the right to protection, and we should note that LGBTQ+ are human beings who also own the right of protection," Ndape said in a statement to FairPlanet

"We grew up by seeing men dating women and women dating men, the fact we respect LGBTQ+ rights doesn't give room for multiplication of their actions in such doctrine to manifest in our country and communities.

"Yes, they are human beings like us who deserve equal rights -that's why we protect them against all forms of torture, killing, and discrimination, because the human rights law state that everyone born freely has the right to die freely, and nobody has the right to torture another human being, threatened them or use any form," she added.

Given the political and cultural environment in Cameroon, LGBTQ+ individuals and those who support their rights often find themselves compelled to lead their lives and engage in advocacy activities covertly or in secret. Currently, there is no indication of any imminent change on the horizon.

Image by Sam T

Article written by:
Njodzeka Danhatu
Njodzeka Danhatu
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The National Communication Council, NCC threatened sanctions against media houses broadcasting LGBTQ+ related content.
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The country’s Law and Order forces arrested two trans women for dressing in women's clothes. Upon their release, the women continued to face harassment and assault by the public.
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"Human Rights are interconnected and related, and for the government to arrest or ban content on LGBTQ+ people is in total violation of the constitution, because the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Cameroon is a signatory, is above the national laws."