CIVICUS speaks with Danny Bediako, founder and executive director of Rightify Ghana, about the LGBTQI+ rights situation and the significance of Ghana’s ‘anti-gay’ bill. Rightify Ghana is a human rights organisation that advocates for community empowerment and human rights, and documents and reports human rights abuses in Ghana.
What are the aims of Rightify Ghana?
Rightify Ghana was formed because LGBTQI+ organisations were all based in the capital, Accra. Living in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region in Ghana, I felt that I had to do something, so I brought together some people I knew and urged them to reach out to others. We all came together and formed Rightify Ghana.
We do advocacy work and report and document human rights violations. We contribute to capacity building through community empowerment activities, including human rights education and sensitisation on safety and security. While as an organisation we do not directly offer sexual health or HIV/AIDS-related services, we facilitate access to them for the people who reach out to us.
We have become a widely known organisation, with people reaching out for information and referrals to certain services. We also offer psychosocial support to people facing various forms of abuse and human rights violations. We undertake media monitoring to understand how the media reports on LGBTQI+ matters and identify rising challenges, and particularly security threats, to inform and educate the LGBTQI+ community.
What are the major challenges facing LGBTQI+ people in Ghana?
For several years the LGBTQI+ community has been targeted by homophobic people, both from state institutions and non-state groups and individuals. But there isn’t enough awareness on these issues, so we usually have to deal with them by ourselves. There are frequent reports of attacks against LGBTQI+ people, including outing them, blackmailing, kidnapping them for ransom and outright physical violence.
Ghana had previously sold itself globally as a progressive country, one that respects democratic principles and constitutional rule. But this year the rights violations that the LGBTQI+ community has experienced for years came to light. Attacks came in quick succession and caught us off guard.
We started 2021 with the closure of a community centre established by LGBT+ Rights Ghana. Then an alleged lesbian wedding, which attendees claim was a birthday party, was stormed and denounced by traditional rulers, police and media. Twenty-two people were arrested and later released.
In May came the case of the Ho 21, in which police and a team of reporters disrupted an event of human rights defenders who document and report violations against the LGBTQI+ community. Twenty-one of them were arrested, becoming victims of the crime they work to document. This nearly broke the whole movement down because other organisations closed their offices out of fear and activists went into hiding; there was too much uncertainty, and most people fell silent.
Most recently, the so-called Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghana Family Values Bill – the ‘anti-gay bill’ – was officially introduced to parliament and is now open to contributions from the public.
What does the bill say, and what motivates those behind it?
The first time I read the bill, I felt like I couldn’t breathe: my right to exist in this country would be taken away from me. The bill promotes ‘conversion therapy’, making it a state function to torture people who question their sexuality or identify as intersex or transgender. Conversion therapy is very dangerous: those who undergo it may experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. United Nations Special Rapporteurs have stated that conversion therapy is a form of torture.
Even though it is bipartisan, the bill is being pushed mostly by the opposition: seven out of eight members of parliament (MPs) supporting the bill are part of the opposition, including the speaker, who brought together the lawmakers and the homophobic group, the National Coalition for Proper Sexual Human Rights and Family Values. To promote the bill, they are using disinformation and lies, including incorrect HIV data stating that eight out of 10 HIV/AIDS cases are of LGBTQI+ people.
We asked the Ghana AIDS Commission to speak out and release a statement against misinformation stigmatising people living with HIV/AIDS, but they declined out of fear. We then asked an independent fact checker, Ghana Fact, which confirmed that the claims were false. It was in turn falsely accused of being funded by the LGBTQI+ community.
If you ask me where all this hate is coming from, I would say it has been imported. The religious texts that are being used to condemn sexual minorities and the current bill are backed by the US far-right movement, and particularly the World Congress of Families, which held a conference in Ghana in 2019. Leading up to the conference, they hosted several key personalities in Ghana, including a former president, the national chief imam and a former speaker of parliament, to ensure that they would encourage homophobia in the ‘background’.
We believe that the US far-right movement has lost its own fight against equality, diversity and progressive values in the global west, so they have turned to Africa, which they view as fertile ground for their agendas. As early as 2017, we started to notice individuals urging the government to do something against the LGBTQI+ community. They did not seem to have enough resources to succeed, but once they formed an alliance with the World Congress of Families and began receiving funding, resources and technical support, they have been able to propose the worst bill we have ever seen go into our parliament.
What are the bill’s implications for LGBTQI+ people in Ghana?
The implications of the bill reach even beyond those who identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community and are already being felt, even before it has been passed. Blackmail has become a major issue faced by the LGBTQI+ community. We used to see two or three cases a week, but now we are getting about three per day. We are seeing homophobic people on dating sites and social media pose as gay to lure gay men into their homes, where they subject them to group violence. In one particular case, the victim was blackmailed and threatened with death. If the bill is passed, people like these will have free rein to harm others, because the law will condone their behaviour.
Ghanaians give much importance to the value of sympathy, but this bill is also going to criminalise the exercise of this value. If an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to violence in public, nobody will come to their rescue because you can be prosecuted for that. The implications are very serious in the area of public health. According to the bill, if you know or suspect that someone is an LGBTQI+ person, you must report them to the police. This applies to nurses and other health workers, which will lead to fewer people seeking health services.
HIV programmes targeting key populations are run by community-based organisations that are mostly peer-led, and if the bill bans them from operating and bans others from registering, people will not be able to access healthcare, which is a constitutional right, making it much harder to fight HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
While our constitution prohibits censorship, this bill will ban the publication of LGBTQI+ content, including reports of crimes against the LGBTQI+ community. This also applies to social media. It will take away our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression, as well as our right to dignity and privacy. While the constitution speaks against discrimination of all forms, this bill is going to legalise discrimination against LGBTQI+ people.
It will also target those who are not queer, including people who use sex toys or cross-dress for comedy, and youth groups and students. Our cultural traditional norms of people of the same gender walking and holding hands and putting our arms across each other’s shoulders are at stake – we sometimes also sit on each other’s laps if there is no space! All these will be outlawed due to being seen as indecent exposure and public show of amorous relations.
What are the current priorities for Rightify Ghana and other LGBTQI+ organisations in Ghana?
Our biggest priority is safety. Even before it is passed, we have already started seeing parts of the bill being implemented. For instance, we have seen an increase in arrests of our community members. In one of these cases, the police arrested two people and urged them to give them the names and addresses of other queer people. They were picked up by the police not for committing any crime, but because someone told them that they were queer.
Each time we hear of people being arrested, activists rush to police stations to get them out. We are paying for our freedom. Although bail in Ghana is free, the police won’t let them go. Under Section 104 of the current Criminal Offences Act, they cannot arrest you just because someone told them you are gay, but they still do. They know they cannot prosecute you, but if you want to recover your freedom fast, they make you pay.
We are also worried that if the bill is passed, its effects may reach further, into the homes of Ghanaian people across the world. The typical Ghanaian diasporic family upholds in their home the same principles they would in Ghana, so queer Ghanaians in the diaspora may also become victims of parents who don’t want to come back with a lesbian or gay child, and may be excommunicated from the family due to homophobia. Even in the UK, Canada and other western countries, Ghanaian families still attend Ghanaian churches where homophobia is preached. If the bill is passed, this is the law that will rule within their homes, and not that of the countries they live in.
What are you doing to push back against the bill?
We are working to take up space, encourage dialogue and start conversations. People have been brainwashed by the homophobic disinformation and genuinely think that queer people are paedophiles and other terrible things. We correct these lies and try to find ways so that people start listening to us and understand that people do not ‘become’ gay due to media influence and they are not ‘recruited’ by some Western power to become gay.
Some people do not know or believe that the queer community faces human rights violations. When we show them the facts, tell them the names of those who have been beaten, evicted, lost their job, or been suspended from school and make them understand that this could be their family member, they might start listening and shift their stance, even if not to support us, at least to soften their position and listen.
We are strategising against the bill and building alliances with mainstream organisations that have access to the legislature and the executive. This is not something one organisation can fight. It is a collective struggle. We mapped the legislative arena to identify those MPs we could reach out to, speak with and share information with, because we needed to have progressive MPs debating on our behalf.
Awareness-raising and engagement are also taking place online. People have reached out to the LGBTQI+ community and offered donations, expertise and contacts so that we could reach out to key personalities who could help. Protests were also coordinated and held outside the country, for instance in Canada, the UK and the USA. Online organising allowed us to hold abroad the in-person protests that for security reasons we could not physically hold here.
How can international civil society best support the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Ghana?
When people ask us what they can do, we tell them to protest, to create awareness, to let people know what is happening in Ghana and urge their governments to do something about it. If they have worked in Ghana before and have contacts among powerful people in Ghana, they should use them. A consultant who has worked with a ministry can use their contacts there, and a civil society organisation that has worked here can use its networks to support local organisations. They should encourage their own governments to take up any opportunity to raise the human rights implications of the bill with the Ghanaian government. International civil society organisations and the global community should definitely put more pressure on the Ghanaian government.
This is a crisis and local organisations and activists were not prepared, so we need a lot of support, particularly technical expertise in the legal arena. It is also key to have allies who can speak on our behalf, so that not all those speaking up against the bill are part of the LGBTQI+ community.
Another thing that the global community and international civil society can do is support us through funding. Rightify Ghana is currently self-financing its activities and cannot offer the level of support that people need. As soon as the bill was submitted to parliament, evictions of LGBTQI+ people increased alongside arrests, and we saw an increase in the number of people asking for help finding shelter, but unfortunately, our community doesn’t have safe houses.
People are being evicted not just by their landlords but also by their own families under suspicion of homosexuality, and they are not finding new places to live. We receive a lot of desperate messages from people who are temporarily staying with friends but urgently need a more stable arrangement. Some of these people are under very high risk.
In one such case, a woman who identifies as lesbian told us she considered leaving the country because a group of boys in her community threatened her with ‘corrective rape’. She lives with her family, and if she tells them about the threat, they will realise that she is a lesbian and will throw her out. Either way, she is in a very dangerous situation, and right now, there is not much that we can do to help her.