Some Reforms, but Colonial-Era Law Should be Repealed
Ghanaians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) suffer widespread discrimination and abuse both in public and in family settings, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While some Ghanaian officials have publicly called for an end to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the government has yet to repeal a colonial-era law that criminalizes same-sex activity.
The 72-page report, “‘No Choice but to Deny Who I Am’: Violence and Discrimination against LGBT People in Ghana,” shows how retention of section 104(1)(b) of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960, prohibiting and punishing “unnatural carnal knowledge,” and failure to actively address violence and discrimination, relegate LGBT Ghanaians to effective second-class citizenship. Police officials and the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) have taken some steps to protect LGBT people. But they are still frequent victims of physical violence and psychological abuse, extortion, and discrimination in many aspects of their daily life.
“Having a law on the books that criminalizes adult consensual same-sex conduct contributes to a climate in which LGBT people are frequently victims of violence and discrimination,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Homophobic statements by local and national government officials, traditional elders, and senior religious leaders foment discrimination and in some cases, incite violence.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 114 LGBT people in Accra, Tamale, Kumasi, and Cape Coast in December 2016 and February 2017. Human Rights Watch also interviewed three representatives of human rights organizations based in Ghana, a CHRAJ complaints officer, the assistant police commissioner, and three diplomats in Accra.
Many of those interviewed said that the law contributes to a climate in which violence and discrimination against LGBT people is common. The provision is rarely, if ever, used to prosecute people, and unlike several of its neighbors, Ghana has not taken steps in recent years to stiffen penalties against consensual same-sex conduct or to expressly criminalize sexual relations between women.
“The government should recognize that we are human beings, with dignity, not treat us as outcasts in our own society,” said a 40-year old lesbian from Cape Coast. “We want to be free, so we can stand tall in public and not deal with obstacles and harassment daily – this will make it easier for us to get an education, learn a trade, get jobs and be useful and productive Ghanaians.”
The Ghana Police Service has at times responded appropriately to abuses against LGBT people, for example in cases of false accusation and blackmail of gay men in Tamale. CHRAJ has an online system to register allegations of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and has processed 36 cases.
But in February 2017, Mike Ocquaye, the parliament speaker, referred to homosexuality as an “abomination” and called for stricter laws against same-sex conduct. In July, during a public discussion about prospects for abolishing the death penalty, he equated homosexuality with bestiality. His comments have heightened tensions for LGBT people and contributed to an increase in calls by some opinion leaders, including other members of parliament, to further criminalize same-sex activity.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, President Nana Akufo-Addo made rather conciliatory remarks. When asked why the law remained on the books, he said he did not believe “a sufficiently strong coalition has emerged which is having that impact on public opinion that will say change it – let’s then have new paradigm in Ghana.”
Dozens of LGBT people have been attacked by mobs or by members of their own families, Human Rights Watch found. In August 2015, in Nima, a town in the Accra region, members of Safety Empire, a vigilante group, brutally assaulted a young man they suspected was gay. In May 2016, in a village outside Kumasi in the Ashanti region, the mother of a young woman organized a mob to beat up her daughter and another woman because she suspected they were lesbians and in a same-sex relationship. The two young women were forced to flee the village.
Lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men are frequently victims of family violence, Human Rights Watch found. Lesbians described being threatened, beaten, and driven from their homes after family members learned of their sexual orientation. One woman said that when her family heard that she was associating with LGBT people, they chased her out of the house with a machete. She has not been able to go back home to visit her 2-year old daughter. LGBT people’s fear that the law could be used against them, combined with social stigma, serves as a barrier to seeking justice, Human Rights Watch found.
The law is inconsistent with basic tenets of the Ghanaian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, respect for human dignity, and the right to privacy. The law also violates several human rights treaties that Ghana has ratified. In April 2014, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted its groundbreaking resolution 275, calling on African governments to prevent and punish all forms of violence targeting people on the basis of their real and imputed sexual orientation or gender identity.
The government of Ghana should repeal the specific provision in the Criminal Offences Act that criminalizes unnatural carnal knowledge and act swiftly to protect LGBT people from all forms of discrimination, intimidation, and violence based on their real or imputed sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ghanaian authorities should also engage in a constructive dialogue with the LGBT population to better understand its needs – with a particular focus on addressing the intersecting forms of discrimination that affect lesbian and bisexual women – and ensure that the necessary legislative and policy measures are taken to ensure their safety, dignity, and equality.
“LGBT Ghanaians should have the same protection from the government as everyone else,” Isaack said. “And the government should work to address the stigma that subjects people to violence in their own homes, the place where they should feel safest.”
“‘No Choice but to Deny Who I Am’: Violence and Discrimination against LGBT People in Ghana” is available at: