In Africa many LGBTQ people experience or are at risk of being subjected to forced conversion practices which inflict severe physical and mental pain and suffering, which can amount to torture. States have a duty to protect them.
Throughout Africa, laws that criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people act as a barrier to safety. Over half the countries in Africa criminalize consensual same-sex intimacy, and at least three African countries also criminalize transgender identities. Even governments that do not criminalize LGBTQ people are unlikely to have laws that protect them. But African governments are obligated under international law to protect LGBTQ people from violence—especially when that violence rises to the level of torture.
One form of violence that African governments must address is the threat posed by conversion practices—also commonly known as “conversion therapy”—that seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Forced conversion “therapies” lead to severe and life-long physical and mental pain and suffering and can amount to torture and ill-treatment.
Outright International conducted research in partnership with national organizations in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa to identify the manifestation and impact of these harmful practices. Our report, published in July 2022, found that more than half of the respondents surveyed from the three countries had undergone some form of conversion practice. Some forms of conversion practices included force and coercion, while some did not. Several respondents indicated that they had undergone conversion practices which could amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. These include cases of so-called “corrective” rape as part of the process of trying to change their sexuality, as well as other forms of severe physical violence. One respondent in South Africa said:
I was beaten until my left arm couldn’t work; by my own mother, it didn’t happen once – every time she finds me with a ‘butch’ she would beat me.
In another case, in Kenya, a respondent reported that her friend was:
…locked…in her brothers’ [property] for two weeks and she was forced to fast, and a pastor prayed for her. There was no change, so they organized for her to be raped.
Another person from Nigeria said:
I was forced to do dry fasting for a week and every night they would flog me with a broom as they prayed. After giving me prayer points to repeat, the prophet and prophetess would hold hands with me in the middle, they would pray and then flog me with a broom. They tied me down with chains like a mad person.
While other research into the nature and harms of conversion practices in Africa is scarce, existing evidence corroborates Outright’s findings regarding the violent nature of many forms of conversion practices on the continent. The UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, for instance, reported that in Mozambique, he heard multiple stories of “corrective rapes being arranged by the family of the lesbian woman, by the community, or being organized in the context of a ‘cure’ performed by some Churches or traditional healers.” He also reported the use of electric shocks as a form of so-called “aversion therapy” in African countries including Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Whilst no one under the age of 18 was interviewed, our research found that many survivors of conversion practices experienced them while they were children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the child has condemned conversion practices on children and has connected them with violations of their rights to freedom of expression and respect for their physical and psychological integrity. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child also protects the rights of children; to uphold it, African states must work to end harmful conversion practices perpetrated on children, including in family and religious settings.
What should African states do regarding these conversion practices?
While these harmful practices are carried out globally, in Africa they are driven by criminal laws that make LGBTQ people second-class citizens, negative rhetoric categorizing LGBTQ identities as un-African, and conservative religious and cultural ideologies which consider same-sex relations deviant and unacceptable.
Some African states claim that they are not “ready” to repeal laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy or that African culture justifies the maintenance of such laws. Yet it is clear that such laws are not only discriminatory on face, they also give way to harmful conversion practices. As an urgent priority, laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people should therefore be repealed.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in its Resolution 275, expressed alarm that “acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations continue to be committed on individuals in many parts of Africa because of their actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity” and urged states to take steps to end such violence and abuse, including through “proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims.” Conversion practices are among the violations that states are obligated to address to uphold their obligations under the African Charter, which prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
States have an absolute obligation to prevent and punish crimes that rise to the level of torture. Prevention, in Africa, will necessarily involve changing discriminatory laws and undertaking to shift public attitudes. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that states “fail in their duty to prevent torture and ill-treatment whenever their laws, policies or practices perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes in a manner that enables or authorizes, explicitly or implicitly, prohibited acts to be performed with impunity.” Where conversion practices constitute torture, States have a duty to promptly investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators under the parameters established under the international human rights obligations pertaining to the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Principle 10 of the Yogyakarta Principles relating to the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment confirms that “States shall recognize that forced, coercive and other involuntary modifications of a person’s sex characteristics may amount to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. States must therefore prohibit any practice, and repeal any laws and policies, allowing intrusive irreversible treatments on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics, including reparative or conversion practices when enforced without free, prior and informed consent of the person concerned.”
States can also adopt policy measures to ensure the protection of survivors of conversion practices, including establishing complaint systems where survivors can report such incidents. States can also gather much-needed data on the nature, extent and impact of these harmful practices, including through documentation carries out by national human rights institutions.
It is important to continuously raise awareness about these practices and sensitize others on the severe and lifelong harm they cause.
States continuing to ignore, or, worse, to promote conversion practices against LGBTQ people is not only impermissible under international law, but it is also ethically unconscionable. For African states to protect public safety and uphold their obligations to prevent violence and torture, it will be necessary to undertake the hard but ultimately rewarding work of eradicating anti-LGBTQ conversion practices.