Young, gay and subjected to torture in Cameroon
Imagine being subjected to a forced anal examination against your will. You are forcefully taken to hospital by a police officer, made to undress and then suffer the shame and indignity of having your anus scrutinised for signs of sexual activity.
This cruel and degrading practice is considered an act of torture under the UN Convention Against Torture, yet several countries still use it as a way of establishing “proof” of same sex sexual relations.
In March last year, Bobo* and Gassi* – two softly spoken young men from the city of Dschang in west Cameroon – were as good as treated as animals when they were made to undergo an anal exam and then held in a police cell for nine days along with one of their friends, Emmanuel*. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of Avenir Jeune de l’Ouest (AJO), a grassroots organisation working with young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT), the three would have ended up in prison.
Punished for asking for condoms
It all started when 18-year-old carpentry student Bobo asked Gassi and Emmanuel, both peer educators with AJO, to drop round to his house with some condoms. Peer educators are important influencers in the community and play a key role in promoting safe health behaviours, especially when it comes to young people. Bobo had only recently come out. “I just felt more at ease with men,” he says, but was unable to tell his family for fear of their reaction.
Gassi, 26 and a marketing student, was 19 when he came out. He says: “I didn’t have the courage to talk to my family about it so I talked to a close friend, who told my family but then I was rejected by them. They said that I couldn’t stay at home any longer and they threw me out. I was really traumatised.”
Gassi has been a peer educator for three years. “I advise young people about HIV prevention and talk to them about their sexuality,” he says. “I really like the work because it means young people can understand what sexuality is, which is important so that they can protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.”
The night Gassi and Emmanuel visited Bobo at home began as a relaxed evening among friends. But it ended in violence and brutality when Bobo’s older brother crashed into the room followed by his father and others from the neighbourhood. They started laying into Bobo and the two peer educators and then dragged them to the police station. All three were badly injured. Bobo’s foot was fractured, Emmanuel’s nose smashed and Gassi’s arm sliced with a knife; he later lost consciousness in the police cell.
“It wasn’t easy at hospital,” says Gassi, “because when they realised that we’d been beaten up for being gay, they didn’t really want to treat us. So we didn’t feel very comfortable.”
The road to recovery
It was at this point that AJO stepped in, supported by a Rapid Response Fund emergency grant from Frontline AIDS. With the help of a firm of lawyers and after raising the bail money – 300,000 CFA, almost £400, for each of the three friends – Bobo, Gassi and Emmanuel were released.
But the damage had been done, both physically and mentally. “I was chased out of my neighbourhood and had to leave my lodgings,” says Gassi. “I wasn’t able to go to class or even to church, I couldn’t attend mass. We were really traumatised, we couldn’t even walk in the street, we were very afraid.”
Bobo adds: “We felt so isolated, everybody had rejected us and we felt totally alone except for the support from AJO.” Because Bobo was still a minor at the time, he had to return to the family home but the emergency grant enabled Gassi and Emmanuel to relocate somewhere safer, and for all three to receive counselling.
Understanding the trauma
Gassi says: “AJO paid my rent on a place a long way from where I had been staying before so I wouldn’t have to go through a situation like that again. They also introduced us to a psychologist who helped me to understand my trauma.” AJO also made sure the two peer educators were well stocked with provisions like rice, pasta, eggs and soap so they wouldn’t have to brave going out to the market.
Due to the poor sanitary conditions in the police cell, with no water for washing, Emmanuel had picked up an infection that led to an outbreak of malignant pustules all over his body. AJO provided antibiotics and remedies to prevent scarring.
Being locked up also meant that Gassi and Bobo, who are both living with HIV, had their treatment regimen severely interrupted. Only family members were allowed to visit the men at the police station, and Bobo and Gassi haven’t disclosed their status to them. This meant the friends were unable to ask for their antiretroviral treatment for the nine days that they were locked up, and risked a less effective viral suppression.
Vital support for recovery
“Afterwards,” Gassi says, “with AJO’s help, we were able to resume our treatment and have our viral load checked. And without the psychological help I really think depression would have taken over. The help we received really changed our lives. I feel safe now.”
Bobo, still very affected by the awful events, has just four words to say about the support he has received: “Merci, merci, merci infiniment.”
AJO’s permanent secretary, François Patrick Waffo Lele, adds: “With the global financial crisis that’s happening at the moment, it’s getting harder and harder to find funding. That’s why we’re so grateful to Frontline AIDS and the Rapid Response Fund which comes through punctually and allow us to carry out an immediate follow up.”
A hostile environment
Young gay men like Bobo and Gassi face extreme discrimination on a daily basis. François Patrick says: “The LGBT community in the west of Cameroon don’t have the right to live their lives, they have to live in secret. We’re in a rural environment here where the mentality is still a little backwards. LGBT people are rarely accepted so when a family discovers that their child is gay for example, either they reject them, or they take them to the church to try and rid them of an evil spirit.
“When people discover that you’re LGBT, you have to endure insults and discrimination in the street, at the market, and at school it’s even worse because of the stigma and discrimination from fellow pupils so sometimes you can’t even go to school to continue your studies. The environment here is hostile towards LGBT people, so many men who have sex with men are forced to marry a woman, and many lesbian women are forced to marry a man. Our culture imposes this on them, otherwise they would be considered as a devil, a demon.”
AJO, created in 2014 by a group of LGBT activists, is on the frontline of the fight against such stigmatisation. Its own staff have been imprisoned and received death threats for the vital work they do to help young LGBT Cameroonians know their rights and access life-saving HIV prevention and treatment, and other sexual health services. François Patrick says AJO has fallen foul of law enforcement agencies. “They say that it’s us who are encouraging LGBT people to become so. So we also suffer from arrests and arbitrary incarceration,” he says.
Criminalisation of LGBT people
Same-sex sexual relations are illegal in Cameroon and can result in a five-year prison sentence if found guilty. It’s no coincidence that HIV prevalence in the population of men who have sex with men stands at around 37%, compared with 3.6% in the general population (aged 15-49). Criminalisation only serves to fuel stigma and discrimination and drive people most at risk away from crucial health services.
Gassi has a message for those in power: “I am a young LGBT community member, I feel at ease with that and you need to accept LGBT people for who they are. I hope for a better future, to be with a man who can look after me, and to live my life normally. At a professional level, I want to be able to work normally like everybody else, I don’t want to be ostracised at work because I’m LGBT.”
Bobo feels similarly: “I hope to be with someone I care about one day, not feel rejected by society, have a comfortable life and live my life the way I want to.”
It really doesn’t seem all that much to ask.
** all quotes translated from French
Avenir Jeune de l’Ouest has been assisted by a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by Frontline AIDS and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so that they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.
CameroonLGBTRapid Response Fund
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