“Homosexuals are a virus.” Bar this being poor work etiquette this inflammatory language used by an African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHR) member speaks to how we sometimes engage with certain rights at international level — namely we do not.
On April 25 this year the Coalition of African Lesbians was granted observer status at the ACHR after a battle of Spartan proportions spanning seven years. This was a milestone for African human rights but one not easily won. One observer termed the session as “one of the most embarrassing in the commission’s history”.
Even though the motion was passed, a commission member stated that the application should be denied as Africans were “not ready” for this.
But why is it that we are “not ready”, especially when it comes to issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health rights? There seems to be the notion within regional rights (and to some extent international rights) that Africans are not ready for any forms of rights that do not have to do with economics, statehood and sovereignty.
Years on from independence and we are still squawking on about nationhood in multilateral forums as if this is the only thing we can completely conceptualise, our other aspects of existence coming into play are seemingly non-existent. This is because those who are meant to be guardians of human rights at a regional and international level often allow their own personal bias to override whatever mandate they are supposed to serve. The need to be a guardian of “African culture” overrides any other role they might need to fulfil.
This proves problematic as culture no longer allows us to properly function in the world around us. How is it that culture is protecting our way of life when it causes us to be actively blind to these issues? The idea of family planning and navigating safe sex is pertinent to African societies.
Aside from the problem of violence against sexual minorities on the continent issues of sexual health are also cause for concern. Kenya and Uganda reportedly have the highest number of unsafe abortions globally. This is coupled with high levels of sexual violence, under-age pregnancies, child marriages, girl children still missing school because of their period and rape being used as a weapon in war-torn areas.
South Africa is one of the few countries that recognise the sexual and reproductive health rights that women need to properly function as human beings within society. Granted domestically there are some problems with the ways in which these rights manifest. For example the right to an abortion has become a series of posters at taxi ranks where one can “whatsapp for a pain-free abortion”. There are unsafe back-street abortions that are causing as much harm as not giving access to these services in the first place.
Despite a failure in implementation, South Africa has an obligation — as a regional leader with a constitution that is a “beacon of human rights” — to champion these rights at the regional level. As a nation that allows for the conceptual and practical space for activists, civil society and government to engage with these issues South Africa is in a position to ensure that sexual and reproductive health rights become entrenched in many arenas.
For people and organisations to say they are “not ready” for these rights is no longer a legitimate response. The excuse is nonsensical and frankly, a little insulting.
Women’s organisations have to fight tooth and nail for women to have some form of agency over their own bodies, this in a world where rape is rife and the single-parent household (usually headed by a woman or oldest girl child) is becoming the norm on the continent.
How are the children our future when some of them are unable to go to school because they are pregnant or cannot access sanitary pads? How can we talk about peace and security when a portion of the population is actively hunted because of their sexual orientation?
It’s time governing bodies that seek to protect the “rights of humans” actually protect these rights for everyone not just those they can “understand”. The excuse of tradition and culture is not good enough because these things in themselves are not static and must, like anything else in the world, change and grow.