In north-west Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, lesbians live in fear. “We sleep in shifts, we protect ourselves,” Juliet tells me. “We don’t have any security who would protect us, we do it ourselves.” She is one of many LGBT Ugandans who has fled terrifying persecution in her home country, only to encounter further harassment, abuse and violence in Kenya.
Uganda has some of the worst legislation on — and social attitudes toward — lesbian and gay rights on the planet. In 2014, the nation’s Parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill, which introduced the death penalty for homosexual encounters. It has since been declared “null and void” by a constitutional court, but there have been several attempts to reintroduce it since then.
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The ugly, often deadly, anti-gay bigotry in Uganda is notorious amongst the international human rights community. The latest atrocity to befall gay Ugandan men will be reported on worldwide, but little has been written about the horrific abuse of lesbians here — which includes forced marriage and punishment rapes — nor their almost equally awful treatment in neighbouring nations.
I recently spoke to several of the 25 lesbians in Kakuma, via shaky Zoom calls and WhatsApp. They explained that LGBT refugees were segregated, in Block 13, meaning it is easy for other camp inmates to identify — and harass — them. Everyday activities such as gathering water, washing and shopping have become dangerous for these women because of the risk of further assaults. “We are in the same block as gay men,” Juliet, who is from Mbale in eastern Uganda, says, “and they mostly take the night shifts of watching over us and whenever we are attacked, they try to help us.” But they never feel safe.
Dire living conditions compound the issue. “Some of us sleep outside in the open space. There are not enough tents for everyone. We wake up early in the morning, we get water as soon as it is available, we do some cleaning, take a shower, feed the children.”
Juliet was forced into marriage when she was 17. Her husband worked in the United Arab Emirates and only spent one month a year with her. And so she became close to his sister, with whom she started a relationship. After her husband died in 2018, “my father-in-law found me with my sister-in-law and told the police. Even if the men stone you to death there will be no punishment for the men, only for us.”
“I decided to leave Uganda because my father-in-law paid someone to come and kill me and my two sons,” she says. “I have four children, three boys and one girl, but my husband’s father took the girl from me after he realised that I’m a lesbian. They say that I’m a bad person and they can’t let me be with that baby girl. She is four now, my youngest child.”
“We didn’t know much about Kenya’s stance on lesbians,” says Juliet, “but in Uganda you are killed, you are hanged for being lesbian, and we were told, ‘Go to Kenya, they will take you in’.”
After she arrived in Kenya, Juliet was told that in Kakuma refugee camp, she and her children would have access to schools, hospitals and food. Above all, they would be protected. But after living in the camp for three years, she has found that Kenya is just as homophonbc as Uganda. “I thought that maybe if I come here, the UN will move me somewhere where I can be safe and live my life with my children. I thought maybe I would be safe and protected.”
In reality, she’s in mortal danger. “In June, I was in my shelter sleeping, when someone came and poured petrol all over it, but before it was lit someone smelled the petrol and shouted. There have been multiple assaults on lesbians. There is never a week when we are not attacked. There have been rapes.”
“The most common problems we get here are rapes, attacks and beatings,” says Latifah, another young lesbian who fled Uganda because of threats to her life. “Many of us have been attacked and assaulted, but the only people we can talk to are the police at the camp, who tell us we are not human beings and they don’t help us at all.”
Her testimony is corroborated by Kevin (a common girls’ name in Kenya). “When you go to the police to report an assault, all they do is say, ‘Why don’t you get married to a man? Why did you choose to be that?’ So they end up not helping you,” she says. Kevin is from Kampala, and has been in the camp for three years.
“We were told the police would give us protection but they don’t send their reports to UNHCR. When you reach the police, you can be arrested for going to report. Realising we are lesbian they say, ‘Why do you pretend to be a boy?’” Kevin has tried to leave the camp at Kakuma several times, but is never given the necessary documents to do so. This signals another sinister form of persecution: not only do the authorities fail to protect women in the camp, they trap them there.
Annie-Marie, another lesbian I spoke to, says the women are in desperate need of support from feminists around the world. “We feel panicked all the time. We need to get out of Kenya. It has reached a point that we cannot be protected anymore,” she says. “We are alone in this world, no one has our backs. We have tried to cry out to everyone and tell them what we are going through.”
Some feminist groups in the UK, such as FiLiA, are calling on people to speak up on behalf of lesbian refugees and demand action from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But, Annie-Maria tells me, “our attempts to make UNHCR listen have been ignored. We call and call the UNHCR helpline but no one answers. The switchboard person just tells us to ‘wait your turn’.”
When I approached UNHCR to ask about Block 13 and the allegations of assault and intimidation against lesbians, I was simply told that: “UNHCR acknowledges the challenges faced by vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma, including some with an LGBTIQ+ profile, and is closely following their security situation. UNHCR encourages anyone facing security issues to report to the police immediately and UNHCR for any protection and legal assistance.”
Despite such assurances from human rights organisations, the women in Block 13 tell me they fear for their futures and even their lives. “We have run from one dangerous situation into another,” says Latifah. “We are in limbo, and feel like no-one wants us, and we are hated wherever we go. Surely it is time for lesbians to feel safe in the world, in 2021?”
This is the story of one block in one refugee camp in one country. But violence and oppression of lesbians does not just happen in East Africa. I have personally encountered sexual and physical violence, as well as harassment and intimidation, at the hands of men since coming out in the 1970s in the UK. I have also witnessed it in countries that are supposedly benchmarks of social equality, such as Norway and Sweden.
I have heard distressing tales from women in Brazil who experience punishment rape and forced into marriage. And in the United States I have met many lesbians whose families force them into gay “conversion therapy” in order to try to force them to be straight. But there are at least laws to prevent such abuses in many countries around the world, thanks to the lesbian and gay liberation movement. But in Kenya and Uganda, there is little or no protection for these women.
They deserve better; they’re not asking much. “We dream that we can get to countries where we can express our feelings and they accept our sexual orientation,” says a resident of Block 13. “It doesn’t matter where it is, but what we need is a place for our life to go on.”