OPINION: 'You can't be a lesbian in Tanzania'

by Kiara Ethan | Eagle Wings Youth Initiative
Thursday, 16 May 2019 12:07 GMT

A vehicle drives past Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania's Hie district December 10, 2009. REUTERS/Katrina Manson/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Tanzania's president John Magufuli has been on a morality crusade, reinforcing discrimination against women and the LGBT+ community in particular

Kiara Ethan is an activist at Eagle Wings Youth Initiative in Tanzania

Being a lesbian in Tanzania is incredibly hard. Prejudice and resentment against people like me run deep in our society. When I put on a nice dress, lipstick and high heels, people say, “You can't be a lesbian – you're so feminine, you should be with a man.”

I recently came out to my mother and she told me that I have to change and that I should "find a man who can satisfy me". My uncle even said he could find two or three men to rape me and "put me straight".

It hurts and terrifies me to hear these things from my own family.

But it’s not just me. The hostility towards LGBT+ people runs deep in Tanzania.

Being part of the gay and trans community here means experiencing frequent arrests, physical violence, sexual assaults, stigma, discrimination and injustice.

Since 2015, Tanzania's president John Magufuli has embarked on a morality crusade, reinforcing discrimination against women and the LGBT+ community in particular.

Last October, Paul Makonda, the governor of Tanzania's biggest city Dar es Salaam, announced he intended to literally hunt down gay people. A few weeks later, 10 men were arrested on the island of Zanzibar after police were tipped off about a possible same-sex marriage ceremony.

There were also reports that lists of names were being published on social media to “out” people. Those who were suspected of being LGBT+ were thrown out of their houses by their landlords. Strangers would harass us and throw stones at us.

And the police don't protect us.

Life had not been easy before, but last year it turned into a nightmare.

I was lucky to meet the Eagle Wings Youth Initiative, a Tanzanian LGBT+ rights group. They helped me find a community and a place where I finally felt accepted and safe.

Now I'm working with them to help others – among them, other women who had to run away from home because their families wanted to force them to get married or because they were raped.

The LGBT+ community in Tanzania is facing a huge challenge. And it’s clear what we need to focus on in these trying times: providing safety and security for our brothers and sisters. We can’t rely on the support of the government, society or even our families. 

We have to support each other as much as we can. This includes making people aware of the risks they’re facing, by reaching out to and educating those who are not yet part of our networks.

We also need to work harder to strengthen these networks and to include all the groups and activists who do this important work across the country. This will help us understand the specific needs and problems and allow us to develop solutions and offer the help that is needed.

As grim as the situation is right now, I’m not giving up hope. If we start to make a change for ourselves and if we know what we want, we’ll be able to overcome this crisis and come out of it stronger than ever before.