A subtle approach to making a difference – The case of Rwandan Civil Society
As the situation in relation to gay rights in Uganda and Nigeria became more inflamed and countries such as Kenya, DRC and Ethiopia were tipped to follow suit, Rwanda has remained noticeably silent on the issue. With a reputation for weak civil society this could be taken as a bad sign. But unlike its neighbours, homosexuality is not illegal in Rwanda and there has been no discussion of making it so. So what does this mean for sexual rights activism in Rwanda?
Over the past few weeks and months, there has been mounting anxiety in Rwanda on the potential ripple effect, coming from the degrading status of LGBT rights in Uganda and in the region. The decision by Kenyan Lawmakers to give up their plans to emulate their Ugandan counterparts and enact tougher laws against LGBT people, came as a relief.
The anxiety was based on two things: First, there is still no unanimity on the issue within Rwandan civil society. Although the legal ship has sailed, many are those who have criticised gay activists and would like the debate to be reinitiated. Second, there is persistent stigma against LGBT groups within the Rwandan public, especially fuelled by religious movements.
Despite this, the Rwandan pro-LGBT activists have not been idle; far from it. They have managed to secure ground-breaking policy milestones; for example, the National HIV strategy has included costing for the import of lubricants, and earmarked ‘treatment as prevention’ for key populations. What this means is that HIV positive ‘Key populations’ (Men having Sex with Men and Sex Workers) will receive Anti-retroviral treatment regardless of their CD4 count; a service normally reserved for pregnant women; others being put on treatment only after their CD4 count drops below 200.
The Strategy further pledges:
- Support in the form of peer education for Female Sex Workers (FSW) and Men having Sex with Men (MSM)which also addresses the problem of gender-based violence to which they are particularly vulnerable;
- Advocacy with law enforcement and local authorities to improve protection of FSW and MSM;
- Strengthen FSW and MSM participation in policy development and program implementation;
- Reduction of socio-economic vulnerability of sex workers by encouraging FSW to create associations and cooperatives.
Any person who engages in prostitution shall fulfil, for a period not exceeding one year, one or more of the following obligations:
- not to leave territorial limits determined by the Court;
- not to go to certain places determined by the court;
- to be subjected to surveillance measures;
- to seek medical treatment;
- to periodically report to administrative services or authorities determined by the court.
While the campaign to have condoms placed in secondary schools was not successful, it led to the enactment of a policy to teach comprehensive sexuality education in secondary schools; a practice that was not only taboo before, but which was seen by the Rwandan society as profoundly immoral.
So how have such developments been achieved given Rwanda’s reputation for weak civil society? And why has the Rwandan government not been more vocal about them?
There is no doubt, even within Rwanda, that civil society is weak. At the launch of a UNDP’s Civil Society Support Fund, the Rwandan Minister for Local Government, while acknowledging civil society’s contribution as critical to the development agenda, regretted that it was too weak to optimally contribute. A recent EU civil society mapping report elaborates on Rwandan civil society’s weakness, describing it as too focussed on service delivery and less on policy advocacy. The international media, the regional civil society, even the chairperson of the Rwandan Civil Society Platform, all speak lowly of Rwandan civil society.
To understand the role played by Rwandan civil society, one needs to look first at the Rwandan cultural, legal and political frameworks. All of which are underpinned by quiet engagement and non-confrontational lobbying. From that standpoint, one sees that Rwandan civil society has deliberately foregone its visibility and, to some extent, its legitimacy, in the interest of silently advancing its agendas. It engages policy makers through ‘protected spaces’ created for that purpose by the polity. These spaces offer incidences for serene talks and behind the scene influence wavering. In this manner, civil society requests are adopted or at least noted. Once a deal is quietly hammered down, the government goes ahead and publicly takes credit for it. This is how the world finds out about progressive policies in Rwanda.
For example, in 2009, the Rwandan government transcended regional prejudice and conservatism to repeal article 217 of the draft penal code criminalising homosexuality, following a marathon advocacy campaign by local civil society groups. But in a radio interview on the issue, the minister of justice was candid: ‘these NGOs do not know what they are talking about; the thought to criminalise homosexuality never crossed our mind!’. In all these happenings, Rwandan NGOs resisted calls from their international counterparts, to take full credit for their efforts. They did not see the need to claim a spot at the podium; we got what we wanted, they said, let them enjoy their moment.
The comments of the President on the Private Equity in Africa Summit, held in London in November 2009, succinctly captures the dynamics at play in Rwanda: ‘On the issue of homosexuals […] We have laws already in place that cater for existence and co-existence of different categories and create harmony in society and, I think it looks like we are headed to leaving it like that rather than heightening tensions and bringing out unnecessary conflicts and debates that will not help the rebuilding of our country’ .
It is true that the established partnership between government and NGOs strengthens government’s image and erodes NGO’s relevance. But that is not the same as saying that it has no function at all. To get results, you have to work within the system; you have to learn to play the game. Granted, a more vibrant civil society would open up the wider society over time. One of the problems is that within a self-censured citizenry such as ours, there are many who are simply not aware of the existing spaces and opportunities to engage.
Another problem is that the term 'Rwandan civil society' itself often feels like an oxymoron. Zealous sycophants, keen to recycle government messages for political purposes or with the hope to be considered for the next reshuffle. These individuals pay lip service to a human rights-based approach and do, at times, undermine advocacy campaigns. Any civil society advocacy that needs to be done, ought to start there; within the civil society itself.
Investing in in-country legitimacy admittedly takes time and may be frustrating. However, it ultimately holds the key to advancing human rights and is perhaps more efficient than riding on international endorsements and track record that may not necessarily have in-country recognition. Regular appearances and active participation in technical fora, can be crucial to building interpersonal relations, and thereby have the ability to influence. NGOs should increase their presence and ability to communicate their actions and network. Especially using existing platforms such as the sector working groups of the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS-II).
As a parting shot, I would say that the Rwandan civil society is weak, but not as weak as people might think. To survive, it must operate within an environment where quiet dialogue and consensus underpin the advocacy dispensation. We have achieved a legal and policy framework that is conducive to the advancement of LGBT rights in Rwanda. But there is still a lot that needs to be done to shape a Rwanda fit for all sexual orientations and gender identities. From my work as a human rights activist in Rwanda in the last twelve years, I know that these actions must include raising awareness among decision makers and law enforcers (lawmakers, government, police, media, NGOs, churches, etc.). This does not necessarily require branding and big publicity campaigns, but something more subtle; an approach that is positive, that not only criticises, but also offers solutions.
This is something I will be working on over the next few months with Polly Haste as part of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme at IDS.
Today, Rwanda is often lauded for its work on gender equality, for abolishing the death penalty, extending healthcare and free education to all. Rwanda became the sixth and latest African country to empower the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to receive individual cases against it, and the only one to extend a standing invitation to all UN/AU special mechanisms. Less known, is the background advocacy work carried-out by Rwandan civil society groups, which have assisted the government to achieve these developments. Sometimes silence can be just as effective.
By Thierry Kevin Gatete
This blog is derived from an article in the forthcoming book: ‘Advocacy in Sub-Saharan Africa’ .
Thierry Kevin Gatete is a Rwandan Human Rights lawyer and founder of the Centre for Human Rights in Rwanda. He is working with the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme on an Evidence report, exploring policy options for LGBT activism in Rwanda.