During my research on Cameroon I’ve come to find out about the recent crackdown on LGBT activists. Cameroon is one of 38 African countries which criminalize same-sex relations. Section 347 bis of Cameroon’s penal code states that a person who engages in "sexual relations with a person of the same sex" can face up to five years in prison. In fact, “Cameroon prosecutes more people for consensual same-sex conduct than almost any other country in the world, with dozens of such prosecutions since 2010,” with the most recent being on May 15, 2013 where two women charged with lesbianism were sentenced to nine months in prison.
Over the last few months there have been attacks on LGBT activists and organizations across Cameroon. On July 15th Eric Ohena Lembembe, executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), was tortured and killed in his home in Yaoundé. Before his death, Lembembe claimed that “There is no doubt: anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
The criminalization and stigmatization of LGBT activists in Cameroon has led to many struggling to find jobs and has “them at constant risk of arbitrary arrest, denunciation, extortion and blackmail” according to Amnesty International. Lembembe’s murder is the tip of anti-LGBT activities in Cameroon. Over the last six months several LGBT organizations calling for equal rights in Cameroon have been broken into, vandalized, and even destroyed.
Eric Ohena Lembembe. Photo via AP
In response to the increasing attacks on activists, LGBT organizations have suspended their projects through USAID, Care Cameroon, and the Global Fund in both Yaoundé and Douala. The organizations have claimed that their activities require a “minimum level of security” which is not being met in the “climate of homophobia”. The suspended projects include providing medical care, advocating for rights, supporting people imprisoned for their sexual orientation or gender identity, and STIs/HIV prevention. The Global Fund has since condemned the attacks on LGBT activists and was considering the requests made by the Cameroonian organizations.
Cameroon’s government has denied that it fails to protect homosexuals and it has claimed that it is investigating Lembembe’s death and will respond to the requests made the LGBT organizations in September.
While perhaps I am failing to uphold the last of the Peace Corps' Core Expectations for its volunteers which is to "Represent responsibly the people, cultures, values, and traditions of your host country and community to people in the United States both during and following your service", I feel that by sharing the human rights abuses occurring in Cameroon does not count.
Looking at the situation in Cameroon for LGBT activists in Cameroon saddens me and it perplexes me that a country can so harshly crack down on people for simple being who they are. However, I took and minute to ponder the situation and I came to realize that perhaps Cameroon and the US are not so different in this respect. While Cameroon makes homosexuality illegal through laws, the US has de facto illegal homosexuality. While there are no US laws preventing homosexuality, there is also the absence of laws in many parts of the US that give homosexuals the freedom they need and deserve. Therefore, while the US fails to outright ban same-sex relations, it does nothing to protect them - which to me is just as bad as outright banning them.
So sure, Cameroon's laws are insanely strict and it sickens me that such violent and oppressive measures are taken against homosexuals and LGBT activists. There needs to be drastic change. But the US is not all too different from Cameroon.
I believe it is part of my job as a Peace Corps Trainee/Volunteer to make connections between both my home country and my host country and find similarities between them both. While I hope that many of the connections I make are positive ones, I will nonetheless not remain silent when the connections are both disappointing, if not downright appalling - and this is one of those unfortunate connections.