Hidden in the folds of society, gay and lesbian Tanzanians are chipping away at an age-old system of oppression.
In 2011 the Tanzanian government began to work toward producing a new constitution. In an effort to engage citizens, President Jakaya Kikwet enacted a Constitutional Review Commission. The Tanzanian Constitution Review Commission has been collecting public opinion on issues ranging from the makeup of the government to social issues.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender LGBT rights are one social issue causing a stir amongst citizens.
Historically, homosexuality in Tanzania has carried a harsh stigma. The stigma following gay and lesbians is subtle but ever-present.
“They’re there, but it’s not really something which is open…People look at it as something that is not right in the population” said Diana Kidela, the CEO for the Platform for Constitution Making: Tanzania.
Kidela cites what she refers to as a common reaction to homosexual behavior, “I saw two girls walking and people starting laughing and whistling, saying that those two are husband and wife.” The stigma can be harsher than taunts, however.
“I can not buy my needs in the neighbourhood because I am a gay, I have no friends in the neighbourhood,” said Mark.
The stigma was solidified with the criminalization of homosexuality in the Tanzania Penal Code of 1945.
Penal Code Sections 154, 155 and 157 make homosexual acts illegal with a punishments ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment.
“In Tanzania, generally, we have not recognized the rights of the minority group- gays,” said Kidela. Activists hope this will change with the passing of the new constitution in April 2014.
WEZESHA, a Tanzanian LGBT organization, has begun a campaign to “scale up constitutional literacy and create awareness among the LGBT community in Tanzania.” Working in collaboration with other LGBT activists, they are reaching out to citizens using social media and educational materials.
For activists like Elizabeth*, connecting with people is an uphill battle.
“The process is unfair when it comes to LGBT people… Most people views us if we are not human beings which results LGBT people to have fears when it comes to this process.” she said. Feelings of frustration within the Tanzanian LGBT and ally community are widespread.
“To be honest, I’ve been interviewed by more than 1000 people but it has never helped the LGBT Tanzanians,” said James Wandera Ouma, the Executive Director of WEZESHA.
The Constitutional Review Commission has held several public forums around Tanzania in a grassroots effort to gather opinions on same sex marriage and LGBT rights. Some worry that these forums further oppress LGBT activists. “No one will ever try to raise that kind of question in the new constitution dialogue because he/she will look so stupid in front of the rest audience,” said Mark*, a gay Tanzanian.
Rather, the Constitutional Review Commission and Tanzanian citizens have focused on what they consider to be more pressing issues.
Kidela says their biggest priority is marginalized groups like the poor. With basic needs, such as health and education reforms taking center stage in the constitutional dialogue, LGBT rights have fallen wayside.
“It’s not really a priority in the constitutional review process.”
by Molly Nocheck (email@example.com)