Teaching a Classroom and the World — Neela Ghoshal, Kenya
Public schools are critical places of learning for students and teachers, alike. Being a public school teacher taught Neela Ghoshal that human rights advocacy and research were her true passions. Working with Spanish speaking students at IS 164 in New York, Neela traveled to Guatemala to improve her language skills. While there she met survivors of the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s and human rights work became her passion.
Today, Neela is the Senior Researcher for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. In this position she has worked on dozens of reports exposing the systematic mistreatment of LGBTI people primarily in Africa.
Her latest report, Dignity Debased: Forced Anal Examinations in Homosexuality Prosecutions,discloses the growing use of medically-discredited torture to help convict gay men and transgender women of unlawful consensual sex. Neela notes that “Egypt is currently the worst perpetrator in terms of systematic use of forced anal exams, although previously it has used them in fits and starts. In Tunisia, the tests have been used regularly in recent years, and in Lebanon, although they have been recently banned, doctors told us they were used for at least 30 years. Eastern and Southern Africa are recent additions with no known cases before 2013.” With so called “gay panics” spreading across the region police feel pressure to get convictions in cases often revolving around mere accusations of homosexual activity.
But police aren’t the only professionals who promote the exams. Doctors and prosecutors are also complicit in promoting their use. Doctors interviewed for the study “mostly did not come across as violently homophobic, but in Tunisia the well-educated and experienced doctor we interviewed was willing to put aside objectivity in favor of his personal bias. He clearly seemed to believe that LGBTI people do not deserve dignity, and that the bodies of what he called ‘habitual pederasts’ were fundamentally different.” she said.
Interviews with those who have undergone the procedure show that they uniformly feel that the doctors were sadistic and destroyed any sense that medical professionals work for their health and safety. According to Mehdi (a pseudonym), a Tunisian man who underwent the procedure “I felt like I was an animal. I felt I wasn’t human. … When I got dressed they put handcuffs on me and I went out, feeling completely in shock. I couldn’t absorb what was going on. The two police were standing and watching what the doctor was doing. I felt violated. I didn’t want to be naked in front of people — not just one person, but three people. … It was the first time anything like this had happened to me and I couldn’t absorb anything.”
Yet Tunisia is the one country examined in the report where ending the practice seems most possible. “Human Rights Watch and Tunisian organizations highlighted the case of the Kairouan Six earlier this year and provoked a political and official debate on the issue with some politicians taking a stand on ending the practice,” said Neela. HRW is enlisting the support of the Committee Against Torture, World Health Organization, UNAIDS and other international groups to increase pressure on Tunisian officials to end the exams.
Neela sees the exams and other anti-LGBTI discrimination as part of the larger sphere of injustice visited upon all marginalized communities. “Brutality, poverty and lacking access to services are universal among marginalized communities beyond LGBTI identities and orientations. They don’t exist in a vacuum where ending homophobia and transphobia will satisfy all other issues. Other repressions would still exist — economic injustice. Police brutality happens to all kinds of people including LGBTI.”
From her current base in Nairobi, Kenya, Neela will continue her advocacy on the issue of forced anal exams then expects to begin work on issues affecting queer women in Africa next year. “Home and family violence are critical issues across Africa. In schools, expulsions or suspensions of girls accused of being lesbian are common and deserve to be examined as a basic human right,” says Neela.
From public school teacher in New York City to human rights advocate in Africa, it’s all part of the same struggle for Neela Ghoshal.