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By Lorenzo Wareham.

Within the last decade the LGBT community and those who fight for the equal rights of gay and transsexual people across the world have made big strides towards equality. In recent years laws legalising same-sex marriage have been passed in many western countries including England, Scotland, Wales and the United States. These laws alongside an increased acceptance of those who identify as LGBT have allowed a previously marginalised community to become more integrated within our society.

However, negative attitudes towards gay people still remain widespread throughout many parts of the world today, in particular the discrimination faced by LGBT people in developing countries - an issue which is often not given enough publicity. This issue comes not only from smaller isolated communities but from societies as a whole, where national laws are put in place with the express purpose of dehumanising gay people living within their countries.

An area of the world where discrimination towards homosexual and transsexual people is highly prevalent is East Africa, in particular the three countries which COCO currently works in, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. The 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Project assessed whether residents of different countries found homosexuality acceptable. It showed that 90% of residents in Kenya and 96% of residents in Uganda considered homosexuality unacceptable. Although Tanzania wasn’t included in the 2014 study, 95% of residents found homosexuality unacceptable in a study in 2007. These alarming statistics are systematic of discriminatory laws and an overall anti-homosexual culture embedded within these societies.

Homosexuality is criminalised in all three of the countries where COCO works. In Kenya, if a man is suspected of having gay sex, it is legal for him to face an anal examination with the possibility of receiving a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. In Tanzania there is the possibility of receiving a life sentence for homosexual activity between men and five years for women. Tanzanian authorities recently stopped health providers from non-governmental organisations providing services to LGBT people with more than 40 HIV clinics shut down for providing treatment to gay people.

In Uganda there are estimated to be 500,000 people who identify as LGBT yet it is the nation with some of the strictest anti-gay laws in place. In 2013 a revised law was passed which made ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by death – the law was eventually annulled after several donors cut aid to Uganda. More recently, in August of this year activists were outraged by the Ugandan government’s decision to cancel a week of gay pride celebrations in the country for a second consecutive year, with the move described as “A violation of fundamental human rights of minority groups.”

The marginalisation and oppression of LGBT people in these countries originates from colonial-era laws and attitudes imposed upon indigenous people by foreign powers. A study published by the centre for Global Development in October 2017 found that when examining differing colonial origins of developing nations, former British colonies lag behind in legalising homosexuality. Fifty-six per cent of countries where homosexuality is illegal are former British colonies, and 71 percent of former British colonies criminalise homosexuality. It should come as no surprise that Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are all former British colonies. This is surely something that needs to be addressed. It seems as though as our views on homosexuality have progressed as a nation while we have almost forgotten about the historical impact Britain has had on the world.

School children outside the Hoja Secondary School.

These negative perceptions and laws criminalising homosexuality put COCO in a difficult position when it comes to addressing this prejudice, particularly as some laws criminalise the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. However, as an organisation impacting on tens of thousands of people each year, we know that some people our work reaches will be gay and we have a duty to protect them as far as we can.

Problems arise from the taboo nature with which homosexuality is spoken of in these countries. This is why education is so important in helping to eradicate misconceptions and misguided attitudes towards the LGBT community. Education empowers people to see through prejudice towards a group. Our Schools for Life programme seeks to provide students with a well-rounded education, which empowers them to be individuals who can think for themselves.

A classroom setting part of COCO's School's For Life Programme.

Further to this, we are also investing specifically in sex education programmes. These programmes will provide adolescents with information on sexual health. Often conservative attitudes mean that sexual health is not taught, meaning that adolescents grow up ignorant of the facts. If we are able to teach about sexual health, perhaps we can do our bit to make any adolescents unsure about their sexuality feel a little more secure and those around them to be a little more tolerant. Although the influence we can have at this stage may be small, there is still hope that through education we can empower the next generation to continue the fight for equality and LGBT rights.

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