Criminalization and Conversion. Prevalence and Practices of So-Called Conversion Therapy in Africa.

“Conversion therapy” is the term most often attributed to practices which seek to change, suppress, or divert the sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression of people who do not fit the presumed norm of cis-gender heterosexuality. The practices are also called reorientation therapy, reparative therapy, reintegrative therapy, gay cure therapy, or, more recently, support for unwanted same-sex attraction or transgender identities. Regardless of what name is attributed, or the form the practices take, they are widely recognized to be based on junk science, and they cause deep and lasting trauma in those upon whom these practices are inflicted. 

Awareness about such practices has grown in a number of countries, such as the USA, parts of Europe and Australia, where authorities have sought to ban them. But elsewhere in the world, very little has been known about “conversion therapy”. It may seem surprising then, that in the first global survey of its kind seeking to characterize the prevalence, nature, drivers and effects of such practices worldwide conducted by Outright Action International, the majority of responses (46%) came not from the regions seeking bans, but from Africa (predominantly Sub-Saharan Africa). A region of the world for which little to no information about so-called conversion therapy practices was known prior to  “Harmful Practices. The Global Reach of So-Called Conversion Therapy” being released. 

Alarmingly, the report paints a chilling picture of widespread, often violent forms of “conversion therapy” taking place across the continent. 33% of respondents from across Africa stated that they believe so-called conversion therapy to be “very common”. By contrast, only 7% in Asia and 17% in Latin America and the Caribbean estimated such practices to be “very common” in their respective regions. A higher proportion of respondents in Africa than other regions also indicated that they know someone who has experienced conversion therapy. 

The key drivers fueling “conversion therapy” practices in Africa appear to be religion, combined with family and cultural pressures. Religion was cited as a key driver by 75% of African respondents, while it was only cited by 21% of Asian respondents. Religious leaders are also the predominant perpetrators - with religious rituals and prayer being the main forms of “therapy” inflicted. In-depth interviews with survivors from the continent shed light on psychologically and physically violent rituals, such as exorcisms, beatings while being “prayed over”, rituals to “beat the demon out”. Women also spoke of sexual violence and “corrective rape”, while men highlighted family violence. 

The role of family is also crucial. In Africa perceptions of family honor, as well as direct (both physical and psychological) pressure and even coercion by family plays a key role in the prevalence of “conversion therapy”. 69% of respondents cited family honor as a key reason for “conversion therapy”, while personal testimonies tell chilling tales of family violence, coercion and subjection to shocking “conversion therapy” practices. 

Persistence of “conversion therapy” is directly related to societal beliefs about LGBTIQ people and the degree to which our lives are accepted and embraced within families, faiths, and societies at large. The practices hinge on the belief that cis-gender heterosexuality is the norm, while gender identities beyond the assigned binary and/or same-sex attraction are disorders which can and should be changed, if necessary, by brutal force.

This is certainly true for countries around Africa. While colonial-era laws banning same-sex relations have been falling across the world, including in Africa - most recently in Botswana, Angola and Mozambique before that - over half of the continent still criminalizes same-sex relations. Recently a court in Kenya refused to strike down colonial era same-sex bans, stating that the laws are not discriminatory and that such a motion would indirectly open the door to same-sex marriage, quite clearly expressing its negative perceptions of LGBTIQ people. 

Even if such laws are not always imposed, they paint a picture of LGBTIQ people as criminals, as somehow threatening or diseased, and they legitimize societal stigma. It is no wonder that in such a context so-called “conversion therapy” prevails and individuals and families seek ways to change or “cure” LGBTIQ people. In fact, “conversion therapy” is, at times, even offered as an alternative to prison for those convicted of same-sex relations - a form of “rehabilitation”, if you will, similar to what is offered to addicts. As such, there isn't only a demand for “conversion therapy”, but even official license to practice it. 

This is entirely flawed logic. “Conversion therapy” is neither therapy, nor does it result in conversion. Such practices are not based in science. They have been condemned by most major psychological, psychiatric, and medical associations, including the World Psychiatric Association. In fact, the only thing “conversion therapy” achieves is deep, lasting trauma on those who are subjected to it. OutRight embarked on this study in part to expose the brutality and effects of such practices, to raise awareness about them and demystify what they may entail. More effort needs to be dedicated by civil society, by governments, by medical and psychological associations, and certainly by progressive faith institutions, to condemn the use of “conversion therapy” and, more importantly, to promote acceptance and understanding of LGBTIQ people so that demand for “conversion therapy” disappears. 

As C.A from Zambia said in his interview for this report: “Let us not hide our realities —of conversion therapy, of mental health, of bullying—that are actually going on. When the public is going to be engaged and enlightened on the lived realities of people like me and others - that is where the change will happen.”

C.A's interview in report – Zambia