Pride 2021: The state of rights for LGBTI+ people across our regions

Two women holding hands, one with a Pride flag painted on

As a global human rights federation, the protection and advancement of rights for LGBTI+ people is a top priority for IPPF. 

People with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) – including lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) people, and others who do not conform to the sexual and gender norms of society – often face violence and discrimination in its many forms.

During the Nairobi Summit in November 2019, for the first time IPPF included work for sexual and gender diverse people in the commitments made. The present state of human rights for sexual and gender diverse people varies dramatically from region to region and country to country, and so we wanted to highlight the laws, perceptions and challenges surrounding these communities across the globe.

Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the rights of LGBTI+ people continue to be severely curtailed in most countries, with punitive laws for same-sex relationships providing for penalties ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment, and even the death penalty in some cases. Countries that implement these punitive laws include Uganda, Nigeria, and Togo, among others. 

In May 2021, Cameroon sentenced two trans women to five years in prison, while Uganda passed a new ‘Sexual Offences Bill’, which increases punishment for LGBTI+ people.

Same-sex sexual acts continue to be a taboo subject in almost all West African countries, with members of this community often being subjected to violence and social prejudice – particularly in countries such as Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Benin (where the existence of LGBTI+ people is often completely denied.)

Nevertheless, other counties in the Sub-Saharan region have made some progress with regards to the rights of LGBTI+ people.

These include Angola, Botswana, Cape Verde, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe and Seychelles. In South Africa same-sex marriage has been decriminalized.

Support and referral systems are important mechanisms to strengthen the protection and advancement of LGBTI+ people. In Mozambique the IPPF member association, AMODEFA, is working in close collaboration with the LGBTI+ community as a safe and inclusive health care provider. 

Americas and the Caribbean

IPPF is present in 21 countries throughout the Americas and Caribbean region, and the fight to provide safe access to services, and lobbying for better protections is ongoing in all of them. The state of rights for LGBTI+ people in the Americas is in flux. While there have been strides in some nations, the region finds itself under-served, under-protected, and most distressingly under attack. 

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2018 became the first intergovernmental body to rule that marriage equality is a human right, strengthening those fighting for same-sex marriages in the countries in the region where this was not already law. Costa Rica became the first country in the region to introduce marriage equality based on the ruling in 2020. Chile, and Peru are among countries that have started the process for similar change.

A rise of evangelical right-wingism across the region has left no country spared. Violently exposing zealous religious rhetoric with well-funded and targeted campaigns they have become a clear and present political threat to human rights more broadly, but especially rights of LGBTI+ people – which some groups target specifically seemingly having no other agenda or religious or political purpose. 

This had led directly to discriminatory political actions in places like Honduras which, simultaneously and without warning, grouped both abortion and same-sex marriage – both of which were already illegal in the country – together in further prohibitive action at the very beginning of 2021. This action set a stark tone, highlighting the impact this particular kind of 'moral panic' can have. Coupling the recent unconstitutional discrimination against trans children’s involvement in sports in the United States, and it completely crystalizes just how far-reaching and dangerous this rhetoric can be.   

However, there are glimmers of hope that exist. For example, in a surprising move Barbados included sexuality in anti-discrimination employment laws. One should also note that currently their archaic colonial 'anti-buggery' laws criminalize 'homosexual acts' with life imprisonment (the harshest punishment in the Americas and Caribbean). Although the government says the intent is to not use this law, they have not removed or condemned it.

The IPPF Member Association of Trinidad and Tobago, FPATT, continues to lead by example by offering safe spaces for the LGBTI+ community – as such, FPATT is regarded by much of the community as a preferred medical and humanitarian support agency. From a needs-based assessment FPATT is advocating for equitable access to healthcare services. This is defined by care and services that are free from stigma and discrimination including systemic exclusions and, is entrenched in our fundamental human rights – rights for all human beings.

Arab World

The death penalty for same-sex sexual activity was removed in Sudan in July 2020. IPPF’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Hub has worked extensively with human rights defenders in the country, including providing them advocacy tools and security training. The first international debate that included sexual and gender diverse activists from Sudan was organised by the Hub in cooperation with Human Rights Watch in 2021.

Conversely, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Somalia, and Mauritania, same-sex sexual activity is still punishable by the death penalty.

While legalized in Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, and Palestine (except for the Gaza Strip), 'debauchery' and 'public morality' laws are sometimes used to target and persecute LGBTI+ people, and face discrimination and violence from certain sections of the public. Against this backdrop, advancing rights for LGBTI+ people across the region can be incredibly challenging.

East and South East Asia and Oceania

The lack of discrimination protection laws for LGBTI+ people in many countries in this region has led to common discrimination and a violation of basic human rights that exists on almost every level of life; be it in housing, employment, education, healthcare and more.

Although certain countries in this region like New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan have come a far way from their fellow neighbouring countries (these nations legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, 2017, and 2019 respectively), violations against LGBTI+ people in most countries in this region still are obvious – whether it is in plain discrimination within the society itself, or the lack of legislative protections.

Advocating for the advancement of equality for LGBTI+ people can be said to be a tricky human rights task; especially in a region as diverse as this one where different countries have different cultural ideals of 'public morality'. Not to mention social stigma, homophobia, and transphobia still remain high in many countries here, and they’re especially strong and obvious, including in some of the countries that hold higher influences of religion in their social and political arena – such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore still criminalizes homosexuality, with laws forbidding what is deemed as 'unnatural offences', and LGBTI+ people in the Philippines among others have limited legal rights.

Whether or not it is fully enforced, the presence of such so called 'corrective' laws in countries itself plays a big part in justifying violence and discrimination against LGBTI+ people within the society. They also play a huge role in increasing social stigma causing many LGBTI+ people to succumb to societal pressure for fear of being outed and/or humiliated publicly by society – or even their families or authorities.

Implementing and holding governments accountable to anti-discrimination laws in this region would definitely help impact social attitudes towards LGBTI+ people as it highlights their basic rights as human beings, as well as their rights to equal treatment, and to live free from violence and mistreatment. 

In Cambodia the IPPF member association, RHAC, has played an active role in holding the government accountable to implementing their human rights obligations for LGBTI+ people. Through establishing a broad civil society network, they engaged with the government to follow up the recommendations on the situation for LGBTI+ people presented to Cambodia in the UN Universal Periodic Review hearing.

Europe

In a nutshell, Europe and Central Asia have some of the best and worst examples of how LGBTI+ people are viewed and treated. Countries in Europe are the ones scoring highest on the rights for LGBTI+ peoples (non-discrimination laws; right to marry; right to adopt; right to change name/gender). However, as we can also see, progressive legal frameworks do not always guarantee being safe from discrimination, stigma and violence. We are seeing more and more people needing to turn to courts for the recognition of their human rights, and in more progressive countries like Belgium or the Netherlands we hear recurrent stories of how acts of violence still happen.

In some countries, legislative change is lagging, stagnant or backsliding too. For example, in Poland and Hungary the situation is now evolving in the wrong direction, with both countries having taken steps to remove existing rights through specific anti-LGBTI+ legislation. 

Including LGBTI+ issues in the educational system also remains a challenge in a lot of countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. In North Macedonia the IPPF member association, HERA, carried out research showing a high prevalence of peer violence towards LGBTI+ students and poor engagement from the school health care staff. With a number of recommendations coming out of the research, HERA will continue their work for creating a safer and more inclusive learning environment for all.

To no ones’ surprise, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and made many LGBTI+ people vulnerable to exploitation and scapegoating by ultra-conservative illiberal actors. Across this region, we saw a rise in abuse and hate speech against LGBTI+ people and legislated discriminatory laws or practices without due process under the pretext of the pandemic. COVID-19 also affected those facing multiple stigma and vulnerabilities (including people living with HIV, people who use drugs, and others  who are at increased risk for structural discrimination), being denied healthcare, housing and more.

To end on a happier note, in 2020, Montenegro became the first Western Balkans country to introduce civil partnership, while in Serbia the government promised steps toward introducing civil partnership in 2021. Switzerland and Northern Ireland both introduced marriage equality, and Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban discrimination in access to services and criminalize incitement to hatred that targets people on the basis of their sexual orientation, with 63% in favour. 

South Asia

Sri Lanka is one of the 71 countries in the world that has laws that criminalizes consensual same-sex acts. This year, for the first time, a head of state acknowledged the rights of LGBTI+ citizens in a Zero Discrimination Day tweet. The public statement has opened up a much-needed conversation on sexual and gender diversity in Sri Lanka, particularly regarding the government’s obligation to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people are not discriminated against in law or practice. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) will also examine the criminalisation of lesbian and bisexual women in Sri Lanka, although a final ruling might not come through until 2022.

On a positive note, Sri Lanka has introduced the Gender Recognition Certificate to the transgender communities. In support of this the IPPF member association FPASL, produced a film, Breaking out from the shadows, to highlight the issues of public administration towards the LGBTI+ community and create awareness of the role of local authorities on their obligations to implement this right. 

In December 2020, Bhutan’s parliament approved a bill to decriminalize same-sex relationships, making country the latest Asian nation to take steps towards legalizing homosexuality. It was later approved by the King of Bhutan, and came into force on 17 February 2021.

India’s Supreme Court scrapped a colonial-era law criminalising same-sex relations three years ago, but LGBTI+ people face widespread discrimination in the socially conservative country. Recently, an Indian court issued far-reaching guidelines in support of rights for LGBTI+ people – from prohibiting damaging attempts to 'medically cure' persons belonging to the community, to seeking changes in school and university curricula and recommending awareness programmes for judicial officers, police and prison officials. 

The Indian southern state of Tamil Nadu is set to be the first state to ban 'conversion therapy', a widely available procedure that hospitals as well as religious institutions offer to change the sexual orientation of those not conforming to the sexual or gender norms of society.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels