The Impact of GALZ in Zimbabwe

The struggle for human rights for the LGBTIQ community in Zimbabwe is difficult and contentious, to say the least, given the government of Robert Mugabe’s long history of hateful and threatening rhetoric. Chester Samba, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) and a partner of OutRight’s, is among the courageous activists who has been engaged in this struggle for more than a decade. Samba recently joined OutRight’s Executive Director Jessica Stern and Africa Regional Program Coordinator Shehnilla Mohamed for conversations with U.S. officials in Washington about the current situation for LGBTIQ rights in Zimbabwe.  He conveyed to OutRight the picture of his concerns and priorities for LGBTI people in Zimbabwe.

“The key issue is around fear. The president [Mugabe] uses different threats to try to dissuade people from taking on the LGBT agenda. Even threats to the media. Anyone who tries to engage on human rights is threatened. That’s the biggest stumbling block. The levels of hate speech and rhetoric from the government impacts civil society and the levels at which LGBTI people are willing to participate.” Samba

GALZ has been relentlessly working for the inclusion and recognition of LGBT rights in the political sphere. Their main priority is the new constitution and the potential to litigate for a broader equality before the law and further decriminalization of homosexual relations as well. The organization is currently building coalitions with other human rights groups in Zimbabwe, including LGBTIQ rights in a broader framework to avoid any notion that they seek special rights, when the goal is respect for basic human rights. These organizations together are considering the establishment of a human rights commission with government officials. 

“A key issue is for us not to be alone or isolated. We’re still trying to embed LGBTI issues in the broader context of civil society. We’re working to bring LGBTI rights into the larger context of human rights.” ~ Samba

GALZ has faced much resistance from local law enforcement who have raided the organization’s offices numerous times. In 2010, they were raided three times in a single month!  They have also faced some uneasiness from other human rights groups in the past, but this challenge has eased as a result of the trainings GALZ has conducted for media, mainstream civil society organizations, and healthcare providers to sensitize them on human rights and improve their treatment of LGBTIQ persons. They have particularly observed an improvement in how journalists in Zimbabwe, especially those working for the independent media, now report news about the LGBT community after several rounds of sensitization trainings. Previously, journalists would sensationalize the activities of the organization, but now they have increased fair reporting on LGBT issues and even approach members of the community for their opinions. 

Although much work lies ahead for GALZ, they have had a significant and beneficial impact on the treatment of LGBTIQ individuals. Their coalition with other human rights organizations will help strengthen their impact in the political arena of LGBTIQ rights. Moreover, the effect of their sensitization trainings can help in producing social change in the perception of LGBTIQ people that might ultimately lead to a political transformation. 

Samba noted that GALZ has maintained some contact with the local US embassy in Zimbabwe for the past two years. They have been able to communicate with local embassy staff to sensitize them on LGBTIQ issues. They have also worked with the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, David Bruce Wharton, on important issues. Thus, the organization is quite optimistic that bridging relations between the United States and Zimbabwe, especially in a Post-Mugabe society, will be beneficial in creating a more inclusionary environment for the African LGBTIQ community.