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Ugandan LGBT activist says threats and violence won't stop the fight for civil rights

October 04, 2019

Brent Bambury, Toronto, CBC Radio

In 2014, Pepe Julian Onziema helped shut down Uganda's harsh anti-gay law
Pepe Julian Onziema came out in the 1990s and living in Uganda meant there was a constant threat of violence.
"I did not know that I was going to be safe," he said on Day 6. 
But that hasn't stopped him.
Since then, Onziema, a front line activist for LGBT rights in Uganda, has defied the government and the evangelicals, and organized gay pride celebrations that were violently disrupted by police.
In 2014, he also led a successful challenge of Uganda's infamous law that made homosexuality a crime punishable by death.
His activism has put him squarely in the line of fire.
"There was always that threat. It was always there. And I knew there was that threat, but I never saw myself like, behind bars," Onziema said. 
Ugandan authorities saw things differently.
Onziema has been arrested or detained seven times and as a trans man in detention, he is extra vulnerable.
"I was stripped by police in 2008 in police detention where the officers wanted to ascertain my gender through my genitalia," he said. 
A policewoman plunged her hands into his pants, he says. "I was devastated." He'd never imagined he'd be detained and humiliated. 
"And when it happened I think that is when the reality hit all of us in the movement that, you know, this is actually life and death for us."
Punishable by death
Uganda is one of the worst places in the world to be LGBT. In 2014, the country's government passed an anti-homosexuality law that made gay sex punishable by death.
"The bill was introduced in 2009 with the help of American evangelicals," Onziema said. "So we stood up. We spoke out."
"We reached to the hearts of parents, reached the hearts of teachers, healthcare givers. There were about 55 civil society organizations that came together to form a coalition to fight the law."
Six months after the bill was passed, Onziema's coalition scored a court victory, striking the law down on a technicality.
Now, Uganda's Minister of Ethics Simon Lokodo wants to bring it back. 
Onziema is not fazed. He thinks it's a political move by a government facing re-election.
"Obviously it's threatening us," Onziema said. "We're going to elections in 2021, so next year is just going to be politicking all over the place."
A stand-off with police
After the anti-gay law was struck down, persecution of LGBT Ugandans continued or intensified.
When Onziema was arrested in 2016, police threw him in a cell and invited the other detainees to assault him. The violence swiftly became sexual.
"I was stripped, beaten to the point of losing hearing in my left ear," he says. 
He'd been detained for being at a gay pride celebration, and was released without charges.
The fact that there's a community that still needs me, that lend me their voices, that also gives me courage.
 Pepe Julian Onziema, Ugandan LGBT activist
This year though, there are indications the LGBT community will not be intimidated by Ugandan police. In May, as the community marked the International Day Against Homophobia, police assembled and surrounded the venue.
"Any guest who was coming — apart from those who were already inside, who came earlier — were not allowed to go in," Onziema said. 
"They sat outside. They did not move," Onziema says.
Onziema says the authorities were unsettled by the defiance and disagreed on how to handle it. 
"There was a section of the police that was saying, 'Do not touch them.' Then there was another section that was saying, 'Round them up, take them to prison,'" he said. "I think they were a bit confused."
"But something amazing happened that day. When the police were there with their guns ... LGBTQ persons who were coming for the event, did not flee."
Source of strength
The community Onziema has helped empower is one of his main inspirations. 
"You can't be a leader without people that you're leading. So the fact that there's a community that still needs me, that lend me their voices, that also gives me courage," he said.
The other source of strength for him is his family. While many Ugandan LGBT people are rejected by their parents and relatives, Onziema's mother remained supportive. 
"Even when I'm released from police custody I have somewhere to go," he said.
Despite the official violence Uganda has directed at LGBT people, Onziema is proud of his country. 
"I love this country to bits. And my work is to make it the kind of place that it really is. It's beautiful. It has beautiful people. And I'm just doing my ounce of something to preserve it for people who will come after me."

Civil rights movement intensifies as hate crimes increase in LGBTQ communities in Africa

September 10, 2019

SLF, Toronto, GlobeNewswire

Toronto – Sept. 10, 2019 – Recently, in Uganda, police with machine guns raided the offices of a human rights group. Pepe Julian Onziema, a director with Sexual Minorities Uganda, one of the organizations in the room, remained calm as police locked the doors and threatened people inside. He’d already been arrested for talking about the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities, so he knew what to expect.

Looking forward and into the light: LGBTQ refugees share stories in photo exhibit

May 08, 2019

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press, National Post

Dennis WamalaTORONTO — Fearing for his life, Dennis Wamala fled Uganda with little more than the clothes on his back.
Now in Toronto awaiting a refugee hearing, he recounts being stalked, beaten, and tormented for his attraction to men as well as women.
He pauses when asked about the work he left behind as an activist supporting others in the LGBTQ community, a decision he considers “the most depressing thing in my life.”
“The only way I can manage it is to not think about it. I try to block it out of my mind,” says the 34-year-old, whose home country considers homosexuality a crime.
It’s easy for Wamala to wallow in dark thoughts and despair, but an upcoming photo exhibit will portray him bathed in light, smiling and looking upwards. That’s really who he is, Wamala says, even though he admits he expected the photographer to produce a more sombre, brooding image.
“I’m a forward-looking person,” Wamala says.
“When you’re an activist like me, the only reason you continue doing what you’re doing is because you believe that it can get better. You look ahead and know there’s something above there that you can change. I think it portrays exactly who I am.”
Wamala’s hopeful image is among 20 portraits of LGBTQ refugees that will be featured in the exhibit, titled “Am I Wrong to Love?,” that’s meant to shed light on human rights abuses facing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming people around the world.
The images were shot by 17 underserved youth who graduated from a photography program run by the social justice charity Jayu in Toronto and Mississauga, Ont. The program hosts workshops under the guidance of professional photographers, held during eight-week sessions that run throughout the year.
Jayu founder and executive director Gilad Cohen says the program mentored 140 budding photographers between its launch in April 2018 and the end of last year. This year it’s on track to mentor 250 youth.
Graduates who return to serve as mentors are eligible to join a social justice exhibition, which this year focuses on LGBTQ refugees from 10 countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and the Ivory Coast. Photographers are again paired with seasoned pros to help them capture the portraits, with Graeme Roy, director of news photography for The Canadian Press, among those involved.
Sixteen-year-old photographer Olivia Barrett says she was inspired by meeting with the LGBTQ refugees and found a way to connect their stories of perseverance to her own life.
“I’ve definitely faced a lot of prejudice when it comes being a girl, being black, it’s definitely very hard sometimes,” says Barrett. “If I can do something to make sure no one else has to go through that, I definitely want to do that.”
Barrett says she was intent on capturing Wamala in a candid moment, in black-and-white. She was not interested in focusing on his pain.
“They did go through a lot, obviously that’s an important part, but they are more than just their story, they are more than just what they’ve been through.”
Wamala considers himself lucky, knowing that many refugees don’t have the support he does, which include friends in the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Pride Toronto, and other groups he’s met through advocacy work in Uganda.
Since he arrived in January, he’s been volunteering with groups including Africans In Partnership Against AIDS and Dignity Network, while continuing to work remotely as vice chair of Sexual Minorities Uganda. He also does what he can to help fellow refugees in Canada.
“They feel depressed, they feel alone,” he says. “But when you share stories and tell them that you have been through worse situations, they get to understand that … they can make it.”
Formerly the director of programs for Icebreakers Uganda, Wamala says he’s been attacked several times over the years. Six months before he left, he started to notice strange cars following him, making him believe “the clock was ticking for me.”
“I don’t know what their motive was but I’m 100 per cent sure they were trailing me for a long time, I have no doubt about that. I was getting anonymous calls threatening me, telling me how my life was about to come to an end, stuff like that.”
He stopped working the month before he left, finding the ordeal “extremely terrifying.”
“I couldn’t get out of the house, I was hiding with a friend outside of the city,” says Wamala, who is from Kampala. “I was not eating anymore, I’d lost so much weight, I was so depressed, I was so stressed.”
Thankfully, Wamala had a Canadian visa because of advocacy work that had brought him to Canada four times over the past five years.
He wrote to the Canadian charity Rainbow Railroad, which bought him a plane ticket to Toronto and paid for two weeks at a hostel. Since then, he’s been staying with a friend.
Wamala says he’s no longer looking over his back, and he hopes to continue pushing for change internationally.
“I won’t stop. I’m an activist born-and-bred and that’s not something I can run away from.”
And that means always looking forward, he adds.
“It’s the only way to look.”

Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola: Stellies Africa Centre director a recipient of Franco-German prize

November 23, 2018

Staff Writer / South Africa, Cape Times

Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola, SLF Board Member
Stellenbosch University director of the Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola has been announced a recipient of the 2018 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law
Cape Town – Stellenbosch University director of the Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola has been announced a recipient of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
She is one of 15 recipients from around the world presented with the prize by the foreign ministers of Germany and France.
Since 2016 this prize has been awarded every year to figures who have made an exceptional contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights and the rule of law in their country and at the international level.
Dubula-Majola completed two of her postgraduate qualifications at Stellenbosch University and became a lecturer at the Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management, and later its director. She herself was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2001.
“It is always humbling as an activist to get recognition. This award is a collective gratitude to those who speak truth to power.”
Dubula-Majola has also been included in the book A to Z of Amazing South African Women, a publication that honours the contribution of women to South Africa’s past, present and future.Others in the book include Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Thuli Madonsela and Caster Semenya.
In the book, Dubula-Majola is referred to as a heroine for our times - someone who has beaten all the odds and is still working actively to improve the situation.
“I welcome challenges. That is how we grow,” she said.
The dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, Professor Ingrid Woolard, said she was delighted to see Dubula-Majola’s work recognised in this way.
“Vuyiseka is an exceptional role model to all of us - she is brave, passionate, dedicated, focused and yet humble. We congratulate her on this international recognition of her unwavering commitment to improving the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and working towards interventions that will reduce transmission.”
In their announcement, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian of France stated: “In this 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Germany and France have chosen to honour 15 individuals who have campaigned courageously to protect human rights.
“They also stand proxy for the many other human rights defenders whose efforts remain unrecognised and who are often subjected to great iniquities in their fight for justice.”
SOURCE: Cape Times, South Africa
Read the original article here.

Include women-led organizations in Canada’s reproductive health projects

July 20, 2017



Ugandan LGBT activist says threats and violence won't stop the fight for civil rights October 4, 2019

Brent Bambury, Toronto, CBC Radio

Civil rights movement intensifies as hate crimes increase in LGBTQ communities in Africa September 10, 2019

SLF, Toronto, GlobeNewswire

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