In Cameroon, defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people or being LGBTI comes with the risk of being attacked or even killed. The murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe, a human rights activist, on 15 July 2013, is testament to this. As we commemorate the second anniversary of his death, Balkissa Ide Siddo reflects on the determination of activists in Cameroon to stand up to homophobia.
In Cameroon, as in much of west and central Africa, being anything other than heterosexual is against the law. It is also socially unacceptable. Vigilante attacks on people who are – or are believed to be – gay or lesbian, for instance, and on those who defend them are common.
In 2013, Eric Lembembe (pictured above), director of rights association CAMFAIDS, paid with his life for his defence of LGBTI people. Two years later, his killers have not been brought to justice.
Yet, despite the very real risks, a courageous opposition to the supposed “traditional” view of sexual orientation is growing.
“You get attacked all the time”
In Douala, Cameroon’s second city, I visit ADEFHO, the first Cameroonian association set up to defend the rights of LGBTI people. In one of the offices, a young man is attending to case files. A 24-year old law student, Alain volunteers at the centre. He is assisting renowned lawyer Alice Nkom, who founded ADEFHO in 2003 and received Amnesty Germany’s 7th human rights award last year.
“My dream is for people to understand that everyone is free with regard to their sexuality. Why should people be attacked because they are gay or lesbian?” says Alain.
Alain’s work at ADEFHO is not without risk. He has been physically attacked several times since he started working with Alice Nkom three years ago.
Why go and kill someone because people say he is gay? I would like that to change.Alain, law student in Doula, Cameroon
“It’s not easy for young people who want to work with her. You get attacked all the time because as she defends gay people, people think you are gay too,” Alain explains.
“I want people to know that not everyone who works here is automatically gay and even if they are, why be so angry about it? It’s their life, their choice. Why go and kill someone because others say he is gay? I would like that to change.”
Nearly burned alive
Alain’s words resonate, especially when I think of what happened to Stéphane, a 36-year old carpenter who also volunteers at ADEFHO. His sexual orientation, in the eyes of many, is a crime punishable by death.
Late one night in 2011, a group of men burst into his home, out for his blood. They dragged him off, stripped him naked and beat and tortured him for hours. Stéphane was saved by passers-by at the last minute, just as his attackers squeezed him into a tyre and doused him with petrol, ready to set him alight. Four years later, the men who did this have not faced justice.
Stéphane is keen for things to change and to contribute to that change. Although he is still traumatised by his ordeal, has been rejected by his family and has to hide his identity for his own safety when he goes out to work, he is still determined.
“Today my fight is so that my younger brothers or my friends don’t suffer discrimination like this. I want to alert the public and all those who can do something to make things better,” he says.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy because people are constantly pointing a finger at you at every turn but it’s for a good cause. I am alive today and I want to be an example, a living example. I will keep telling my story for as long as I can. I will keep talking about this thing that haunts my life.”
Today my fight is so that my younger brothers or my friends don’t suffer discrimination like this.Stéphane, carpenter in Doula, Cameroon
“Our fight must continue”
These young men are not alone. Associations like ADEFHO in Douala and CAMFAIDS in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, are working hard to protect and defend LGBTI people and combat homophobia. Like Eric Lembembe of CAMFAIDS, they show great courage in the face of grave risks.
For Alice Nkom, “These threats are in fact proof that our fight must continue.”
Thinking of the courage of Eric Lembembe, of Alain and Stéphane, I can’t help but agree. Amnesty is supporting two days of action in memory of Eric Lembembe to call for justice and for an end to homophobic violence against LGBTI people and those who defend them.
Today, the two of them can add their voices to the stream of others around Cameroon and beyond raised in favour of rights and justice for LGBTI people and those who defend them.
Some names have been changed. Show your solidarity with Eric Lembembe’s family, Stéphane and Alain and the many who support them by signing our My Body My Rights Manifesto for sexual and reproductive rights.