Tanzania’s gay community targeted and cut off from healthcare

Nairobi – Tanzanian gay activist Tee, 34, recalls with nostalgia a time when Tanzania was like “paradise” for LGBT people – before the 2015 election of President John Magufuli ushered in fear and persecution.

It’s all relative. Tanzania has long criminalised same-sex relations, and social stigma has always existed, but under previous governments homosexuality was not a public discussion.

The country was slowly making progress by including the LGBT community in discussions on healthcare and the fight against HIV/Aids.

“In those days Tanzania was like paradise… We were enjoying our life, people were going out, hanging out in bars, having meetings, public events, without fearing anyone. We were able to participate in government meetings,” Tee told AFP during an interview in neighbouring Kenya, using a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.

“But now you can’t even dare. Now we have to hide ourselves.”

Since 2016, Tanzanian authorities have carried out numerous raids on private meetings held by LGBT organisations, arrested and carried out forced anal examinations on suspected homosexuals, and blocked crucial healthcare services and HIV prevention programmes.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday released a report called “If We Don’t Get Services We Will Die”, detailing the anti-LGBT crackdown under Magufuli’s rule.

‘Glorifying gayism, promoting homosexuality’

“The Tanzanian authorities have orchestrated a systematic attack on the rights of LGBT people, including their right to health,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBT rights researcher at HRW.

“Manufactured threats around the so-called ‘promotion of homosexuality’ have displaced best practices and evidence-based approaches in guiding HIV policy in Tanzania.”

According to HRW, the crackdown began when a transgender woman spoke to a local television station about her work with civil society organisations which provide condoms and lubricant – essential HIV prevention tools as condoms are more likely to tear during anal sex without water-based lubricants.

This led a lawmaker to accuse the station of “glorifying gayism”, and it was forced to issue an apology.

In ensuing days, the regional commissioner of Tanzania’s economic capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, pledged to arrest gays and anyone who followed them on social media.

Not long after, the health ministry banned the sale of lubricants outside of government hospitals.

They also shuttered scores of drop-in centres which had been established by NGOs to provide HIV testing and counselling and distribute anti-retroviral therapy, condoms and lubricant – seen as safe spaces for the LGBT community – for “promoting homosexuality”.

‘They end up dying’

Tee, like numerous LGBT people interviewed by HRW, said he knew of many people who had stopped taking their HIV medication and died as a result.

He is also HIV positive and said that government hospitals “are stigmatising the people going to access services. There is a lot of preaching, a lot of negative words from those healthcare workers. They tell you how to live.”

A transgender women activist and sex worker, who identified herself as Queen M, 31, told AFP she had been ridiculed at public hospitals.

She said transgender women had also been increasingly targeted by police.

“There was a time I was coming from a club, in a short dress. I did not have money… They said if you don’t have money what else can you offer. I had to have sex with five of them (police officers) the same night,” she said.

Queen M said that she also knew many people who had stopped taking their medication.

“The funny thing is there are those who are still taking medication – but still their viral load is increasing, from stress, self-stigmatisation,” Queen M said. “At the end of the day, they end up dying.”

Tee, who was also arrested during one of the raids, managed to prevent forced anal examination by freely admitting he was gay, but saw younger men traumatised by the procedure as well as forced HIV testing given without counselling.

Travel ban

Magufuli has been credited with efforts to stamp out corruption, but he has come under fire for clamping down on civil liberties. That includes tightening the screws on the media, opposition and civil society organisations.

In 2018 he assured the World Bank – which had blocked missions to Tanzania over discrimination against LGBT people – that the government would end “discriminatory actions related to harassment and/or arrests” on the basis of sexual orientation.

The World Bank later lifted this directive.

Denmark also reversed a decision to withhold $10m in aid from Tanzania on the basis of human rights violations.

On Friday, the US State Department slapped a travel ban on Makonda, the outspoken anti-gay commissioner of Dar es Salaam, for “his involvement in gross violations of human rights”.

However, HRW says nothing has changed and urged donors to “hold President Magufuli accountable to his commitment”.