The region of West Africa is characterised by its diversity in terms of politics, religions, economics, cultures and languages. One of the things that West African countries do have in common is the remaining taboo on sexuality and particularly on same-sex relationships. In nearly every country, LGBTI people are generally discriminated against and not protected by law. Cape Verde is the one exception, being the second African country after South Africa to have legalised same-sex sexual acts. In contrast, most countries in West Africa have directly or indirectly criminalised homosexuality. Some, for example The Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria, do that by means of explicit penalties stemming from the British colonial ‘anti-sodomy law’. Other countries, including Benin, Togo and Senegal, have more implicit penalties under laws condemning ‘indecent’ or ‘unnatural’ acts. In certain regions in Nigeria and in Mauritania, Sharia law punishes homosexual acts between men with death by stoning. The application of laws differs according to the country and the political context.
Politicians, the media and religious leaders often seek legitimacy or popularity by publicly taking positions against homosexuality, declaring their aim to protect of African values against what they refer to as Western depravation. Religious fundamentalism is hostile to individual rights, pressuring men and women to get married and start a family. Rejection, low-esteem, homelessness, poverty, a lack of education, a lack of healthcare, exposure to violence, public humiliation, extortion, social isolation and suicide are all common among LGBTI individuals in West Africa.
In this increasingly hostile environment, LGBTI organisations are needed more than ever. As elsewhere, the HIV/Aids-prevention interventions were the first spaces in West Africa for LGBTI activism, focusing on MSM. Later on, broader LGBTI groups as well as women bi-lesbian-queer groups and Trans groups emerged. The latter two groups are underrepresented and scientific data about them is lacking. According to the report We Exist: Mapping LGBTQ Organizing in West Africa the region primarily has a need for leadership development and capacity building, rights education, the documentation of human rights violations, collaborations with religious leaders, traditional leaders, lawyers, judges and the media, more support for safe houses, more family mediation better healthcare accessibility, more safety and security, advocacy on a regional and international level and strategizing on litigation and decriminalisation.
Considering the current situation and the challenges in the region, COC began supporting a regional strategy since 2017, which focuses on specific target groups. The implementation of this regional strategy is aligned with, but separate from, the COC-supported in-country programmes in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal. To create a basis from which to strengthen the regional movement, the self-esteem of the activists themselves first needs to be strengthened through sensitisation with regard to questions of gender identity and sexual orientation. A series of training sessions then builds up the capacities of leaders and trainers from the region and strengthens the networks among and between the Anglophone and Francophone countries (and potentially Lusophone). Providing support for the Trans movement and the LBQ women’s movement is another focus.