CIVICUS speaks with Najeeb Ahmad Fokeerbux, founder of the Young Queer Alliance (YQA), about the recent ruling by the Mauritius Supreme Court that declared the criminalisation of same-sex relations unconstitutional.
The YQA is a non-governmental, youth-led and apolitical organisation registered in Mauritius that seeks to empower LGBTQI+ people and organisations, promote equality and lead change.
What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Mauritius?
The human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Mauritius have progressed for one and a half decades now. The issue of healthcare for LGBTQI+ people was raised in the National Assembly as early as 1995 with regard to HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment. Since then, we’ve seen strides with HIV interventions targeted at LGBTQI+ people with change accelerating since 2008. The Employment Rights Act was passed in 2008, and would later become the 2019 Workers’ Rights Act. The Equal Opportunities Act was promulgated in 2012 and the Civil Status Act was amended in 2021, allowing for the registration of sex at birth of intersex persons as ‘undetermined’.
Yet local organisations, including the YQA, have faced a deadlock in addressing some pressing needs and aspirations of LGBTQI+ people such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the recognition of trans people and marriage equality, and it didn’t seem that legislative change would occur anytime soon.
What was the process leading to the decriminalisation of same-sex relations?
Conversations around litigation to challenge section 250(1) of the 1838 Criminal Code, which criminalised homosexuality, started as early as 2014. Numerous community consultations were held, but no queer people were ready yet to take on the challenge. It was a David versus Goliath situation.
Since YQA was founded in 2014, advocacy efforts started making progress with policymakers. Conversations gained new momentum in 2018 with the queer community winning support from international allied organisations. India decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, and with around 65 per cent of Mauritians being of Indian descent, this had a lot of impact. There didn’t seem to be a reason for Mauritius not to follow suit.
In September 2019, with the support of two law firms based in Mauritius and France, three friends and fellow activists and I approached the Supreme Court to seek constitutional redress on the basis that section 250 (1) of the Criminal Code violated our fundamental rights and freedoms and was therefore unconstitutional. Two additional cases followed: one by renowned gay artist Henry Coombes and another one by a young queer activist, Ridwaan Ah-Seek.
But change wasn’t going to happen if we only sought it in court. We had to accompany the legal process with efforts to change the hearts and minds of people. In other words, we had to fight two battles – one in court and another in society – at the same time, while ensuring that plaintiffs remained safe and didn’t lose the courage to continue a legal battle that would take years.
The YQA mobilised the community and funding from donors for this strategic and planned effort. In addition to our lawyers, we got support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Equal Rights in Action Fund of the National Democratic Institute, the European Union delegation in Mauritius, Planet Romeo Foundation and The Other Foundation. They supported a range of projects to empower LGBTQI+ ambassadors, provide media training, engage with both the public and private sectors and undertake research. We submitted the results of a research project we conducted in 2021 to the courts as evidence.
The four plaintiffs – two Hindus, one Christian and one Muslim – brought to court our stories as queer people from all parts of Mauritian society. Three of us being public officers, we were able to show the challenges we faced due to this abhorrent law being on the books. We played our part and our skilled lawyers played theirs. One thing led to another, and four years later, on 4 October 2023, LGBTQI+ people in Mauritius no longer needed to live with the constant fear of being criminalised.
What made Mauritius not follow the regressive path taken in some other African countries?
The Supreme Court showed independence, impartiality and sensitivity to human rights. The principle of separation of powers was upheld. Mauritius is seen as a respected political and economic player in the region. We hope we will be an example for other Commonwealth and African Union member states to follow.
However, we recognise that unfortunately, many African countries are plagued by dangerous imported extremist doctrines that are erasing the core meaning of being African. The situation is worse than that when the colonial masters enslaved us, for it is our own kin, people with our same skin colour and the same African roots, who are dehumanising and un-Africanising us, while it is them who are bringing in an imported ideology – homophobia.
What’s next on the LGBTQI+ agenda in Mauritius?
Two issues that need to be tackled are the recognition of trans people and marriage equality. By preparing ourselves and providing there are adequate resources, the YQA will be able to help us overcome these two injustices.
This ruling paved the way for greater inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in Mauritius. But although same-sex private sexual relationships among consenting adults have been decriminalised, it remains crucial to educate queer people and people in general about the ruling and its implications for human freedom, equality, dignity and rights.
What international support do you receive, and what further support do you need?
The YQA works in networks with LGBTQI+ activists and organisations in the region and beyond. This is what makes our queer movement a global one. And it contributes to learning, sharing and lifting each other’s spirits.
Achieving the recognition of trans people and marriage equality will require institutional support, strengthened allyship, the participation of the private sector and sustained funding. At the same time, Mauritius is set on the path to becoming an upper-middle-income or high-income economy, making organisations such as the YQA ineligible for donor aid. Donors have to understand that the overall economic situation does not benefit LGBTQI+ people equally and should therefore continue providing targeted support, capacity development and funding to LGBTQI+-led organisations to continue our work.
Civic space in Mauritius is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.