Leading article: A continent's darkness

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The Independent Online

Prejudice against gay people in Africa is a serious problem. Four people in Uganda have been attacked after being named on the front page of a newspaper as being among the country's 100 "top homos". It is only the latest example of anti-gay violence in the continent. And it comes on the anniversary of a bill introduced in Uganda last year calling for the death penalty for people who have gay sex while infected with HIV. The proposed legislation would have outlawed the words "gay rights" and made it a crime not to report a gay person to the police.

Two contradictory trends are fuelling this African controversy. On the one hand is the growing influence of anti-gay evangelical Christians, incited by extremist ministers from the United States who have gone to Uganda insisting that homosexuality can be "cured" by therapy. On the other hand there is a growing middle class in Africa demanding greater freedom of speech. The influence of these two groups is finely balanced; when Kenya recently proposed a new rights-based constitution many church leaders instructed their flocks to vote no, claiming it would promote abortion and homosexuality. The voters ignored them.

In Kenya, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and South Africa gays enjoy some constitutional protection. But homosexuality is still a crime, or a cultural taboo, in much of Africa, as it was until comparatively recently, in historical terms, in Europe. Education did much to change that in the West but that is less powerful a lever in Africa because national curriculums are tightly controlled by central governments dominated by conservative elites.

Health, however, offers a way forward. Much of Africa's money for healthcare comes from big Western donors. Cash to combat Aids, in particular, comes from American-dominated institutions like the Global Fund. With US money comes US values. Strategies prioritise what the jargon calls "Most at Risk Population" and that invariably includes what is called an "MSM component". MSM stands for men who have sex with men, since many African men have sex with both women and other men and insist that does not make them gay.

A rights-based attitude to health is slowly spreading to other areas. The next step will be to use the law, as has been done in India where human rights groups have made legal challenges to a sodomy law which dates back to Victorian colonial times. The Indian High Court has now ruled it unconstitutional. In Uganda, last year's anti-gay law has been quietly shelved after an international outcry. Change will be slow, but it is on the way.