Observers Direct: The fight against homophobia and transphobia in Cameroon
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Hardly a week goes by in Cameroon without a video emerging that documents violence against gay or transgender people. Our Observers, LGBT rights activists, brought this worrying phenomenon to our attention. In this episode of The Observers Direct, we visited them on the ground to see how they help victims and fight to change public attitudes.
Caught "in the act" with a partner, lured into an ambush or singled out for their appearance – LGBT people in Cameroon face daily threats, violence and suspicion. They are often the victims of beatings, evictions from their homes, prison sentences or even death, all because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
This violence has existed for a long time but has been steadily increasing in recent years. A group of associations has compiled a list of incidents that have taken place online or in person. The figures speak for themselves: there were more than 3,500 cases documented in 2021, compared with 200 in 2016.
'Cameroon, a country facing multiple crises'
The rise in identified cases can be partly explained by increased vigilance and organisation from LGBT activists. However, the phenomenon largely arises from the fact that Cameroon is facing multiple crises, according to our Observer Nickel Liwandi, director of the association CAMFAIDS. The country is dealing with an armed conflict in its western English-speaking regions as well as a population of displaced persons from the Central African Republic in the east.
Whenever there are crises, there is a lot of violence against different minorities, especially sexual and gender minorities. In these crisis and displacement zones there is a significant police presence, and we have a lot of profiling, especially of people who look differently from the commonly accepted norm in Cameroon. Many are also victims of economic violence because many are forced to accept sexual propositions to support themselves.
The Covid-19 pandemic has further amplified the trend. Lockdowns and curfews have increased the risk of domestic violence for those who are forced to stay at home. Plus, many transgender people who work in nightlife or who are forced into prostitution have seen their incomes plummet during the pandemic.
The 'Shakiro' incident shines a light
A series of events have also exacerbated public scrutiny of LGBT people. In February 2021, transgender activist Shakiro, who is well known online, was arrested along with her partner Patricia, also transgender, in a restaurant in Douala.
The two women were finally released on bail in July 2021, but the high-profile case drew the public's attention to transgender people in Cameroon, something which many people had been previously unaware of, or had preferred to ignore, our Observers say.
Other similar cases have made headlines and gone viral on social networks, such as a Cameroonian man's marriage to a Swiss businessman, or a sex tape between the former captain of Cameroon's women's national football team and another woman.
Transgender people the targets of violence
"Some people don't need much justification to take action," laments Liwandi. And transgender people are among the populations most targeted by violence. Like Bijou, a 27-year-old waitress who was accosted by two men in her bar on her birthday. They offered her a drink elsewhere, took her phone and forced her to follow them to another bar.
It isn't clear whether they knew she was transgender from the beginning, but Bijou ended up being attacked by about twenty people, beaten, stripped and humiliated. A third party had to intervene before one of the aggressors agreed to take Bijou to the police station.
But at the police station, she was the one who was arrested, while her attackers went free. Three months later, an assailant was finally sentenced to six months in prison, 450,000 CFA francs (about 690 euros) in damages and 250,000 CFA francs (about 380 euros) in fines.
It's rare for those who attack LGBT people to be punished, due to Article 116 of Cameroon's penal code which outlaws same-sex relations and is often used to condemn anyone who is even suspected of being homosexual.
Educating society on what it means to be transgender
At the heart of the fight for transgender people's rights is an association called Positive Vision, which is run by our Observer, Akiki. She talks to people who are questioning their own identities and gives them advice on how to protect themselves. She hopes to "educate" society on what transgender identities are:
Since Cameroonian law sanctions homosexuality, people tend to equate trans-identity with homosexuality. For some people, being transgender would be like breaking the law, like a scandal, a sacrilege. We need to get people to understand that there is a difference between one and the other. It's not a choice to be transgender, we are born transgender. There is a feeling, it's how you feel in your skin. And it's so strong that you can't overcome it.
Akiki's association also comes to the aid of transgender people who are forced to prostitute themselves. In our report, we were able to meet Jennifer, 27 years old, and a sex worker since she was 12 years old. It wasn't her choice, she says: transgender people are discriminated against everywhere, it's almost impossible to find conventional employment.
Her daily routine is filled with jobs that end in beatings when the client discovers that she is "not really a woman". She says she barely makes any money, "just enough to buy clothes", which is an essential expense for transgender people to be able to better express their gender identity.
Like many of the LGBT people we met in Cameroon, Jennifer has one dream: to leave her country for a place where she can live out her identity and sexuality without being forced to "blend in".
Fighting through fear
Our Observers' fight against violence and discriminatory laws takes courage. While their associations are legal, their missions are sensitive: one of them asked to stay anonymous in our report and some activists preferred to use pseudonyms.
Their fear isn't unfounded. Some activists – even some lawyers – were taken into custody themselves when they went to the police station to help an LGBT person who was detained.
And they know that change won't happen overnight. Raising awareness and protecting LGBT people in Cameroon will also require the goodwill of authorities.
In November 2021, shortly after Bijou was attacked, the Ministry of Communication finally published a response to the widespread outrage directed at LGBT people.
"It's not up to each and every one of us to take justice into their own hands and punish those who may be convinced of [homosexuality]," the ministry said.
But in the same statement, the ministry explained, "Homosexuality remains contrary to our reality, to our convictions and to our culture, as well as to our duties of procreation."