The UK government is among major aid donors to have funded clinics in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania that offer so-called “conversion therapies”, which pressurise gay people to “quit” same-sex attraction, an investigation has found.
In a six-month undercover investigation of the centres, reporters from global news website openDemocracy were told being gay is “evil”, “for whites” and a mental health problem. Among them were facilities linked to some of the world’s biggest aid donors, including USAid and the British government’s fund, UK Aid, run by organisations such as UK-based MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly Marie Stopes International) and Swiss-based Global Fund.
Yvee Oduor from the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya called for aid donors to redirect their funding, adding that “we already have clinics and health centres run by LGBTQI+ people all over the country. Why not fund these community initiatives?”
Conversion therapy refers to physical treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It has been condemned by more than 60 associations of doctors, psychologists and counsellors worldwide.
The British government pledged to introduce a ban on conversion therapy in 2018, but in May announced that a public consultation will be held before any measures are taken. Amnesty International this week urged the government to urgently introduce a “blanket ban” on conversion therapy, fearing a consultation could lead to opt-outs for religious groups.
The openDemocracy reporters said they visited facilities that had been flagged in previous research with more than 50 LGBTQ+ people in east Africa. Conversion therapy activities were found in 12 out of the 15 clinics they visited. Counselling was the most common method of conversion therapy offered, and in Uganda a reporter posing as an older sister to a 17-year-old was told to get him sleeping pills to prevent him from masturbating.
“Although we followed up on medical related leads, many interviewees shared experiences of conversion therapy practices in family, religious and workplace settings,” said reporter Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said it does not specifically fund the programme run by MSI Reproductive Choices referred to in the openDemocracy report, adding that it “conducts rigorous assessments before supporting any organisations” and that the UK government “strongly opposes the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy and is committed to introducing a UK ban”. MSI Reproductive Choices said it has launched an investigation into the allegations, and “strongly condemns this harmful, unethical practice, which goes against everything we stand for as an organisation”.
Javan Ariana, 23, a transgender sex worker, told of her experience of going to a government hospital in Uganda. “I registered my preferred names and one of them asked me if I’m a man or a woman. I explained that I was born male but that I feel female. They counselled me immediately, prayed for me and told me that what I was doing was bad,” said Ariana, who was told she was “evil” and was “going to die young”.
“One nurse said that I couldn’t get treatment in the hospital because the government says we cannot treat such people, yet I know the law says I have the right to health,” said Ariana, who was told to bring “other people like her” to the hospital so they could be “healed” too.
“After hearing such conversations I was traumatised and scared, thinking that they might even give me the wrong medication and maybe I would end up dying. I didn’t even get the medication I needed – I just went home and stayed with my sickness.”
Under laws from colonial times, gay sex is punishable by life imprisonment in Uganda. The Sexual Offences Bill 2019, which is awaiting presidential assent, reduces the sentence to 10 years – but has broadened the criminalisation of homosexuality to include the criminalisation of women who have sex with women.
In a statement in May, Human Rights Watch Africa director Mausi Segun called on President Museveni to reject the bill, which she argues “does not do enough for survivors, conflates consensual sexual acts with violence, and offers tools to persecute LGBT people and sex workers in Uganda”.
The investigation found an HIV clinic at a Kampala public hospital – specifically catering to marginalised groups, including LGBTQ+ people – was implicated. The clinic is run by Ugandan organisation Most At Risk Populations Initiative (Marpi), which won a $420,000 (£305,000) USAid grant in 2019, and gets funding from the Global Fund. USAid did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment. The Global Fund said it had “zero tolerance for any action that limits access to health services or that may encourage or promote any form of discrimination or violence”.
Tevin, 21, was taken for therapy at another Kampala hospital by her father when she was 18. The psychiatrist asked Tevin how gay she felt on a scale of one to 10. “I told her 10, why would I feel any less? I’ve been gay all my life,” Tevin said. “She told my dad if he paid I could have surgery for my brain that would make me straight, but that I had to finish high school first.” She said she was willing to go through with it if it would make her straight – and make her parents happy. Tevin believes that the psychiatrist may just have been trying to extort money from her family, but the effect was that she felt “sick and damaged, like I needed to be treated”.
“If you’re a person that has self denial it will give you false hope that you can be what you’re not. It also takes away the chance of parents accepting us for who we are, because they think they can just pay money to make us straight.
“It just makes life a whole lot harder for us.”
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“Work is already underway for … disconnection of Russia from the Swift banking system, sanctions on the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 [to Germany],” if it invades Ukraine, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said in The Guardian Tuesday. “If [Russian president] Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” US national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told Reuters.
Can artistic freedom survive in Sudan? The writing’s on the wall… | Global development
In the new dawn of a heady post-revolutionary era, Suzannah Mirghani returned in 2019 to the country of her birth for the first time in years. Her mission was to shoot a short film on Sudanese soil. It proved unexpectedly straightforward.
“When the revolution happened, there was this exuberance,” she says, from her Qatari home. “When we came to make our film, we were given the green light. We were told: ‘Anything you want’.
“Nobody harassed us. Nobody told us what to do. Nobody asked us for the script. I call this time in the history of Sudan ‘the honeymoon’,” says Mirghani.
More than two and a half years after the toppling of the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Mirghani fears the honeymoon is over, at least for her. The turmoil into which Sudan has again been plunged means she feels unable to return safely.
On 31 October, as her film, Al-Sit, won the latest of many awards, Mirghani had to give an acceptance speech that was anything but celebratory.
Six days before, the military had seized power in a coup, detaining the civilian prime minister and bringing the country’s fragile transition to democracy to an abrupt halt.
In a video address from Qatar to the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland, Mirghani said “the only reason” she and her crew had been able to make Al-Sit was the active encouragement given by the civilian-military partnership government. “Now,” she added, “we’re in very serious danger of going back to the bad old days of military rule and stifling creative expression.”
Since the coup, a lot has happened: huge pro-democracy protests thronged through Khartoum and other cities, with at least 40 demonstrators killed.
After almost a month, the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was released as part of a deal struck with the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
But the protesters, who want the military out of politics for good, are not convinced, and even less so as security forces fire teargas into the crowds that continue to gather despite Hamdok’s return. With the creative gains made after the revolution now hanging in the balance, Sudanese artists feel they have to speak out.
“We artists will be the first to be targeted if the military government continues in power,” writes Aamira*, a painter, in an email from Khartoum. “We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, unarmed. There is nothing to fear any more.”
In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Hamdok defended his decision to strike a deal with the military, saying it was essential to stop the bloodshed and “preserve the achievements of the last few years”.
It may not have been uppermost in his mind, but one of those achievements was the flowering of an artistic community that had long been harassed, censored and forced into the shadows. Assil Diab, a street artist, says: “I painted Omar al-Bashir as the [face of] coronavirus in a stadium in Bahri during the daytime, which would have been just impossible; my whole family could have been killed two years ago.”
Feeling compelled to return amid the revolutionary fervour, Diab returned to Sudan in 2019 and made her name painting the faces of the revolution’s “martyrs” on the outside of their families’ homes, with a getaway car close by in case the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces saw her.
For Mirghani, the “absolute elation” of the revolution yielded creative results. Al-Sit is the beautifully observed story of a Sudanese village girl whose parents want her to marry the sharp-suited son of a wealthy cotton trader in Qatar. “To finally be able to express yourself, to say what you had wanted to say to these people for 30 years: it’s amazing.
“My film is about women’s rights. It’s social commentary on arranged marriage. I don’t think we could have said that a few years ago,” says Mirghani.
The “honeymoon” was not without its challenges. The dictator was gone, but social and religious conservatism – and a reluctance to champion the arts – remained. Artistic freedom was patchy: in 2020, the renowned film-maker Hajooj Kuka and several others were detained during a theatre workshop.
Asim*, a documentary film-maker in Khartoum, says that, although in the capital the “direct censorship” of the Bashir era has eased, the rest of Sudan is not as relaxed. “It’s partially freedom and partially censorship,” he says. “It is a battle about 10% won.”
Khalid Albaih, a political cartoonist based in Qatar, returned after the revolution to launch the Sudan Artist Fund (SAF), to provide budding creatives with money and mentors, and with an ambitious plan to create a public art and design library. He says: “I thought: this is it. All doors were open and this is what we were going to do.
“I took all my papers, and for the first time in 10 years I’m in Sudan walking around, not scared of any police, or secret police, or anything. I went to every business owner in Sudan and everyone that can donate money to these causes. And I got nothing but rejection – for a library and for an artists’ fund.”
Finally, Albaih secured $7,000 (£5,300) from CultuRunners, a cultural exchange organisation, and the SAF awarded its first grant of $500 in October – just before the coup. “It was incredible because the internet cut out [after the coup leaders imposed a nationwide online blackout] so the artist didn’t even know he had won. We had to call him. It took two or three weeks to send the money to him,” says Albaih.
The cartoonist knows there will not be any more funding for a while. “Now everything is rocky. No one knows how things will go. It’s going to be really hard for artists and these kinds of initiatives to move forward.
The coup, says Diab, left the creative community feeling “disappointed and just broken down … because we finally thought we were free and then this happened.” She intends to apply for political asylum in the US, where she is studying, feeling she “can be of better use to Sudan” from overseas.
Those in the thick of it cannot afford to give up hope. Asim was at a protest in Khartoum against the post-coup deal last week and was “teargassed the entire afternoon” amid chants of “no partnership, no negotiation, no legitimacy”. He is realistic about future challenges but knows that people have made up their minds.
“I feel like there is a grip on power and it will not end today; it will not end tomorrow. Whether those power-hungry authoritarians will roll with democratic transition and allow people to express their freedoms, allow journalists and film-makers to operate or not, that is something that is still [up in] the air, because you never know with the ever-changing dynamic of power in this country,” he says.
The momentum towards democracy is undeniable, he says. “I believe that is possible and I believe there is hope. The people will not stop asking for what they really want. [Will] that future come tomorrow? The day after? In two years? In five? We never know. But it seems like the consensus is that people agree it has to happen.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identity
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