The transgender community in Africa is one of the most marginalized and overlooked populations in most countries in Africa. This has led to the transgender communities in Africa to be extremely vulnerable. Most African countries have limited LGBTQ+ rights to begin with — and have no desire to change it. The calls from human rights defenders across the globe for African countries to remove punitive and restrictive laws, policies and practices that undermine the rights of the LGBTQ+ communities have fallen on the deaf ears of our leaders. Sexual orientation, identity and expression of gender is still considered extremely controversial and very few people dare to speak up on these issues. The very thought of it is considered taboo and can lead to serious legal actions and death.
Many people in Africa don’t understand that a transgender person doesn’t typically fit into the traditional gender categories. There is little to no awareness on sexual identity and orientation. One is simply expected to follow the rules that govern the genders, which in this case, African communities see only two — male and female. These rules in most African communities are socially constructed, and failure to follow them has led to horrible punishments. There have been cases where transgender children have been beaten by their parents to within an inch of their lives because they were not acting “normal”. Transgender people are being constantly asked to explain and justify why they are different. In other African culture , the trans-person is considered cursed and will be taken to undergo a traditional or Christian “exorcism”.
Other extreme violations and abuses are also done in order to humiliate and mock transgender people in Africa. There have been cases where a trans person has been raped or undergone different forms of sexual abuse. In South Africa, cases of “corrective” rape have been on an alarming rise. Most cases are not reported because police will not lift a finger to protect the victim, but will go out of their way to protect the perpetrators.
There is also the fear of exposing their sexual orientation to the police which poses another level of danger to the victim. In Kenya, back in 2001, there was a case where a transgender woman was stripped naked by the police upon realization of her true identity. The police publicly displayed her naked and alerted their colleagues to come see and taunt her. No actions were ever taken against the police officers who chose to parade the victim naked for hours while mocking and degrading her. The situation is made worse because most transgender people in Africa are alienated from friends and families. They lack a support system and have no one to talk with in such instances.
Apart from homophobia and violent acts, the transgender community in Africa also has a hard time when it comes to legally changing their names on the national identity cards. The process for a legal name change is costly, difficult, and very few cases have won. It was only recently in 2014 that a transgender activist in Kenya was able to win her court case to change her name from Andrew to Audrey. In South Africa, it remains an arduous process especially since the government officials remain unsensitized to the struggles of the transgender community. Even though South Africa acknowledges the right of a trans person to change their names and gender marker, it is still extremely difficult to undergo the full process.
The major issue for most trans people in Africa is arguably the sex change and gender reassignment surgery. Most medical practitioners in Africa are not well-familiarized with the turmoil of the transgender community. They don’t understand why a patient is requesting for a sex change. Audrey Mbugua, a transgender activist from Kenya spoke of her first experience with a healthcare provider. Upon hearing her request, the health worker proceeded to open her drawer, take out a bible and prayed for Audrey to be freed from the devil’s clutches. She was also unable to undergo the gender reassignment surgery in Kenya because Kenya’s minister of medical services canceled the operation without an explanation. A sex change in Kenya is virtually impossible and one has to get it overseas. Most African countries don’t have professional training when it comes to such surgeries, either. There is also a lack of resources such as hormone pills. It is also an expensive procedure which is not covered by most medical insurance companies on our continent.
It is very difficult living in Africa as a transgender person. The community is disregarded and have no protective rights in most countries. Most Africans don’t even understand what being transgender is and very few NGOs are willing to come to the aid of the community. There is no awareness but a lot of injustice which is swept under the rug because no one dares to speak up. In the silence, however there is a lot of pain, alienation and death. I hope more trans people in Africa will speak up and I hope we can be open-minded about their plights. After all, a little empathy goes a long way in our quest for humanity.
About the Author:
Christine Siamanta Kinori grew up in a little village in Kenya known as Loitoktok near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. All she wanted to do when she grew up was to explore the world. Her curiosity led her to join Nairobi University to pursue a degree in Journalism and Mass Communications. She later got a job with an amazing travel magazine Nomad Africa which gave her the opportunity to explore Africa. She also writes for numerous travel websites about Africa and tries to create a new narrative in the media about our aesthetic continent.
Christine claims to have somewhat unhealthy addiction to TV and reading, as it is a fun way to keep herself occupied during the long journeys for her travel writing. She is also a believer of letting people be their beautiful selves. To her, love is love and it is the greatest gift we have as humans.