How HIV-focused groups keep homophobia alive in Cameroon

Violence against LGBT people persists in Africa not only because of homophobic officials and many homophobic citizens, but also because of the dominance of HIV-focused organizations that receive the vast majority of international funding but do not address many of the dangers confronting LGBT people, says  Emmanuel Freudenthal, who recently served as interim Justice and Human Rights Program Manager for the European Union in Cameroon.

He described the grim situation in an article titled, “Eric Ohena Lembembe and the future of LGBT activism in Cameroon,” published in Democracy in Africa. Freudenthal is now a human rights researcher in Central Africa.

In arguing that there is a desperate need for international NGOs to partner more equitably with a wider range of grassroots activists and organisations, he describes the inadequate police response to Lembembe’s murder:

Eric Lembembe (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
Eric Lembembe

Most of the international press that covered Eric’s murder demanded that the murderer(s) be found. However, as the Police are one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, the chance of obtaining justice for many crimes in Cameroon is slim. This is particularly true when the crime is motivated by homophobia:  members of the Police have been known to harass those perceived as homosexual, and occasionally use the law prohibiting homosexuality to blackmail people.

The investigation into Eric’s murder has not been serious so far:  the Police do not appear to have even taken photos of the crime scene and their questions have mostly been aimed at ascertaining the sexual orientation of Eric and his colleagues.  Some of his friends were even put in jail for several days. As they were neither witnesses nor accused in the matter, this was a completely illegal manoeuvre. It seems quite likely that the assassins will not be found.

But he focuses most of this attention on the LGBT rights defenders in Cameroon who risk their lives as they continue to work without financial support.

Clearly, the defenders of LGBT rights in Cameroon have a heavy burden to shoulder. Nevertheless, with the flurry of press releases, condemnations, blog posts and tweets regarding Eric’s murder and the various international organisations working on LGBT rights, it seems that Cameroonian activists have many allies supporting them. Or do they?

In fact, most of the local organisations that provided the information regarding Eric’s death to the media report that they are struggling to make ends meet. They lack funds to keep free medical drop-ins staffed by non-homophobic physicians open, share information about HIV/AIDS, provide legal support to those who get arrested, investigate claims of violent intimidation, etc. This also means that they are facing greater risks themselves as they lack resources to have sufficiently secured offices, ask for legal support, or move to a safe place when situations become too heated.

Many committed activists, like Eric, are doing this risky work on a purely voluntary basis, so they are struggling to get by, as well as receiving daily threats of violence and sometimes facing exclusion from their families and communities.

The courage of many activists that I have met is outstanding. Their situation is what prompted me to write this article: After discussing the status quo with several LGBT organisations, they encouraged me to provide my own, ‘external’ perspective on the issues they currently face.

The money goes to a few well-established organizations. Those on the front lines of the struggle against homophobia get little or none.  Lembembe’s organization (CAMFAIDS) is a prime example.  Anti-AIDS organizations use LGBT advocates to combat HIV in the LGBT community, but don’t assure their safety.

While one or two LGBT organisations in Cameroon have accessed long-term institutional funding by international donors, the majority rely on small and precarious resources. Donors mostly prefer to provide a few large grants to well-established organisations, which are easy to manage. As a result, most donors seem to focus on the same few organisations.

In some areas, such as indigenous rights, international NGOs aim to partner with several local organisations and thus channel large grants to them to promote their long-term growth. This is, unfortunately, not the case with LGBT rights in Cameroon and this issue seems widespread in other sectors of ‘international development’.

USAID logoThe multi-million dollar HIV-focused programs, funded by USAID and the Global Fund, use LGBT activists to help with their outreach to LGBT people, but they shy away from the harder rights-based questions that face these groups and individuals and do not provide institutional support for LGBT organisations.

After Eric’s murder, Cameroon’s main LGBT NGOs have halted their work within these projects as a reaction to what they see as ‘a partnership which reduces identity organisations to a mere workforce and keeps them in insecurity and precariousness’. Indeed, to my knowledge, many of these international organisations offers ridiculously small payments for risky activities on very short-term contracts. The main reaction to Eric’s murder by the large health-focused organisations was to ask for how long the implementation of their project would be suspended. It seems unlikely that these organisations will change their mindset to support local activists in the long term.

Note from the editor of the Erasing 76 Crimes blog: In fact, after announcing the suspension of their work as too dangerous, the NGOs soon resumed work on the projects with no announcement of additional funding for security. The only statement about additional security was that event organizers would try to be more cautious. [See the blog post “Abandoned: Plans to keep AIDS fighters safe in Cameroon.]

Back to another excerpt from Freudenthal’s article:

I believe that the approach of international organisations working with LGBT people needs to change drastically in order to be much more inclusive and respectful of local organisations, their views and their safety.

… The shock of Eric’s murder could be the trigger for all of us to become much more effective in ensuring that the human rights of all Cameroonians are respected. This is the goal for which Eric was willing to risk his life.

For more information, read the full article in Democracy in Africa: “Eric Ohena Lembembe and the future of LGBT activism in Cameroon.”

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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