Openly defending gay rights in Africa is a dangerous business. You may face many different risks: office raids, arbitrary arrest, prosecution for “unnatural” acts, stigma and even violence in the street. West Africa is no exception: the decriminalization of homosexuality is a sensitive topic that is regularly exploited by political and religious leaders and the media. And yet human rights defenders such as Rosa are emerging in this hostile environment by working and fighting day by day to demand respect for LGBTI rights, and to find a safe place for youths abandoned by their families because of their sexual orientation.
She doesn’t wear a lawyer’s gown and doesn’t practise in her country’s courts. But Rosa, recently graduated from the Faculty of Law in Lomé, the Togolese capital, has chosen the tortuous path of defending Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) rights in Africa.
Rosa was born and brought up in Togo, one of the African countries that still criminalizes sexual relations between consenting same-sex adults. It is within this hostile environment that Rosa, motivated by a friend and her own convictions, has decided to work for one of the few organizations defending LGBTI rights.
You can count our supporters among human rights defenders on the fingers of one handRosa, young Lgbti rights lawyer
At 25, she is everything but a rookie. She advocates for the respect of LGBTI rights in packed civil society organizations’ meetings and on the ground discreetly, but with strong confidence.
“You can count our supporters among human rights defenders on the fingers of one hand. Nonetheless, we will continue to fight for all human rights to be respected.’’
With its limited resources, her organization helps young people from the LGBTI community who struggle to restore their dignity and find a decent job. With few resources, “we are helping to improve the lives of people who are no less human because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression”.
The organization Rosa works for provides human rights education, advocacy and awareness raising on respect for LGBTI rights in Togo.
“We have a hundred or so members in Togo, and our aim is to contribute to the development of members of the LGBTI community in a social and legal environment free from stigma and discrimination.”
She and her co-workers receive pressure, anonymous threats and homophobic insults from the media, in places of worship and on social media.
Rosa is also subject to pressure from her family, who is rooted in its traditions and finding it difficult to appreciate her work.
“My parents don’t like my work as a LGBTI rights defender but I am stubborn and I won’t give up,” she says with a determined smile. Rosa remains brave and optimistic.
It is important to contribute to social change. It may take some time but I am sure it will come eventuallyRosa
“It is important to contribute to social change. It may take some time but I am sure it will come eventually,” she explains.
And she confides: “A human rights defender once told me that defending LGBTI rights wasn’t a proper job.”
And yet she stands firm in her support for the rights of people arrested in her country purely on the basis of their sexual orientation. She visits them in prison, ensures they have a lawyer and that their dignity will be restored once they are released. It is the work of a determined and committed defender and lawyer.
Rosa doesn’t wear a lawyer’s gown. Not yet. But she is a lawyer. Firmly and resolutely.
** Name changed