Sexual minorities, including sexual workers and members of the LGBT community, faced the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda as most of them lost their jobs, jailed, cases of discriminations and attacks also intensified in the larger community.
Up to 60 per cent of the 12,000 members of the LGBT community in Kigali lost their jobs, according to My Right Alliance, an organisation that works with LGBT members.
Many of the members of LGBT community worked in bars, hotels, restaurants and salons and they were the first to be laid off, and were not restored. It becomes easier for them to be targeted since majority live openly as members of the LGBT, which has made them susceptible to silent discrimination.
The more than 30 members of the LGBT community, who had attended the launch of a handbook on the “Right to sexual reproductive health and justice in Rwanda for sexual minorities”, prepared by Human Rights First Rwanda, told The East African that hate speech targeting LGBT members was more widespread during this time, with some people in the community openly blaming COVID-19 on gay people.
The event, which took place last month at Heartland Hotel in Nyamirambo, gave a safe space for members to voice their grievances, and also share how COVID-19 impacted them.
Although born male, Clarisse Cyubahiro Eric, is now a transgender woman, an identity she “Knew from childhood, but only embraced in 2012”, to the chagrin of her family and friends, except her mother who stood with her throughout.
She however lost her mother this year, which intensified the attacks from her family and total abandonment.
After losing the only parent she had, Clarisse found herself between a rock and a hard place, after she also lost her job around the same time.
In an attempt to escape the torture she was being subjected to by her family and around her area, she relocated to Kayonza District in the Eastern part of Rwanda, where she depends on hand-outs from well wishers.
“We lost our families way before COVID-19, but the hate, stigma and discrimination even from them intensified during this time, my mother was the only cord I still had with my family, when she died their true colours came out” she said.
She faults some organisations that pledge to support them, only to disappear at a time LGBT members need them the most. “I had to go far away from my family and everyone who knows me, it had become safer living among strangers than living with my people,
“I am trying to hold onto this life that I still have, but it becomes harder every passing day, especially with no income”.
Bertrand (Not real names), a gay man, was kicked out of the house he rented after he lost his job, and the only option he had was to go back to their families, but he was rejected by his family, saying they don’t want him “to infect other children with homosexuality”, who were home for many months after schools were closed due to COVID-19.
He went to live with some other LGBT, who were also living in deplorable conditions, which drove him to join them in drug abuse and alcoholism.
“We take drugs to try numb our pain, you want to be intoxicated to escape this reality, but it’s always there waiting for you to be sober again”.
He says his landlords, including his former landlord, who hated their gay tenants but couldn’t evict them without reason, because it would tantamount to discrimination used this time when LGBT members lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent as an excuse to evict them.
The landlord I talked to, who preferred anonymity, said although it has never happened to him, and he doesn’t know exactly how he can react, he wouldn’t be comfortable renting his house to a gay person.
“I have never talked to someone I know is gay, part of me fears them, so I don’t think I would be comfortable renting my house to someone I know is gay”, he said.
Uwayo Dushime is a transgender Rwandan woman who was born male, she just returned from Canada where she has lived most of her life.
She longed to live in Rwanda, a country of her heritage, she says although Rwanda is more liberal in regards to treatment of LGBT people compared to many of her neighbours, she is still finding it hard to deal with the stares which follow her everywhere.
“Physically I am safe and I knew I would be safe even before coming, but something I was not prepared for is the emotional and psychological safety,
“There lots of stares, I developed anxieties because of this, I have been keeping home mostly, yet I am an out-going person” she observed.
HIV positive sexual minority members could also not access ARV’s due to COVID-19 mostly due to restrictions.
Due to the stigma and discrimination, some HIV positive sexual minorities opted to be picking ARV’s from other districts, as opposed to where they are known, but this became difficult due to travel restrictions.
Some organisations like Health Development Initiative (HDI) and My Right Alliance tried to facilitate access of ARV’s and other forms of support for instance food and nutritional supplements, but the number of those in need overwhelmed them.
Uwihoreye Jean Claude, a member of the LGBT community, and Executive Director of My Right Alliance, says as a result of all these problems experienced this year, mental health issues shot up among the members.
“What happened to them this year exasperated their mental health problems, many resorted to drug abuse as an escape, while others attempted suicide”
“Yet those who could offer support for their mental health could not access them due to the restrictions” he noted.
The LGBT community in Rwanda had made some gains over the last few years, especially since government removed the provision that criminalised homosexuality in 2010.
The decriminalization of homosexuality granted several rights to the community, for instance freedom of association and worship, which they previously forewent.
Many for instance could not go to worship in any religious denomination, but this has since changed especially for Christian members of the LGBTI community, after an inclusive church called Church of God Rwanda, was established in Nyamirambo, a Kigali suburb.
Besides giving them a safe space to worship, the church also offers counselling services to LGBT members who are battling depression and drug abuse.
The change in the law made discrimination or persecution of members of the LGBT community illegal, however they say much as this is a move in the right direction, the reality is often different.
They say institutional discrimination against LGBT members still exist, for instance up to now they can’t register organisations even when the law allows them to.
“The moment RGB gets to know that its an LGBT organisation, they toss you up and down until they deny you registration” said Uwihoreye, whose organisation is also still an association because of this.
Although the discrimination in access to health services had reduced, the persecution the community experienced this year shows the gains are still on shaky grounds.
“The discrimination that they suffered in this COVID-19 year shows how the society is still behind in terms of awareness and understanding of the LGBT issues,
“It is good government removed the clause that criminalized them, but it needs to go beyond that and play an active role in fighting their silent discrimination”, said Kayitesi Brenda, the Programs coordinator at Human Rights First Rwanda.
Elsewhere in the region things are not any better, in April this year, 20 members of the local LGBT community in Uganda were rounded up and detained when police raided their shelter, accusing them of violating social distancing; something they say was used to mask their persecution.
Although a panel of judges amid international pressure and threats of aid cuts overturned an anti-gay law enacted in 2014, which introduced harsher penalties, gay sex is still criminal in Uganda, and it is punishable by life imprisonment.
Kenya has curved a name as a regional haven for LGBT people seeking asylum, and is home to many gay men who escaped persecution from Uganda, yet homophobia and harassment is still evident in Kenya as well, where gay sex is still illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Tanzania has maintained its hostile stance when it comes to LGBT members, where anti-gay sentiments became more amplified John Pombe Magufuli became President.
Reports indicate that government has targeted LGBT groups, banned lubricants, accusing them of promoting homosexuality, threatening to deport and prosecute LGBT activists.
In Rwanda, Uwihoreye and his fellow gay friends keenly tuned in as the US results were tabulated and broadcasted.
They are not US citizens or even keen observers of politics, but this particular election meant something important for them, especially if Joe Biden won, because of what his win spells for the LGBT community even in Rwanda.
“I was following every step of the election, rooting for Biden, from him we expect more protection of LGBT rights and pushing for removal of harsh laws targeting LGBT especially in Africa” said Uwihoreye.