I can’t help but think back to that day when Aurel walked into my office and I hardly recognized her as the girl I had come to know. She looked shabby and unkempt, and as if she had been awake all night long. Her eyes were puffy and there were streaks of dried tears along her cheeks.
Before I got a chance to ask what was wrong, she broke into tears. In between the sobs and blowing her nose, all I could hear was, “I can’t continue to live this way! What did I ever do wrong? Why God, why? Why can’t I have feelings for a man as they all want me to? Why won’t anyone understand this is who I am no matter how much I try? I am tired of living my life this way! I will end it!”
I tried desperately to calm her down so as to understand what was pushing her to such extremes. After some time, I learned her parents had taken her to yet another all-night vigil for prayers and “deliverance,” where she was forced to suffer public shaming and humiliation in front of the congregation in the name of being exorcised of the evil spirit that was responsible for her homosexuality. My heart ached as I listened to her story, but sadly this isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a story as the founder of Big Steps Outreach Network. Over and over the LGBT youth of Cameroon have been subjected to “corrective” rape, torture, and abuse in detention cells, extended stay in custody before being charged, refusal of family visits, denial of counsel — just because of who they are.
As I watched Aurel I felt both sorry and angry, because the attitude toward homosexuality in Cameroon has religious, legal, and medical underpinnings that seem insurmountable. The law has not made things any easier and with the criminalization of homosexuality. Police officers extort arbitrary bribes from those arrested on charges of homosexuality before setting them free.
Those of us who are working to change the system face mob break-ins, vandalism, and threats. Assassination of outspoken activists is commonplace, as in the case of Eric Ohena Lembembe, who was tortured and killed in July 2013.
There is a long way to go to address issues of homosexuality in Cameroon, but I know that young people and adult allies in that country and around the world will find a way to make change. The Cameroon National Association for Family Welfare is making important strides with a project called Meeting Sexual Reproductive Diversity Needs, which seeks to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of LGBT people in Yaounde. As a recipient of funding from the Global Funds to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, it has been able to train community-based organizations like mine, fostering partnerships with LGBT-friendly health care providers to improve young LGBT people’s access to care, including free HIV and STI testing and treatment and safer-sex kits that include condoms and lubricant.
We must fight to decriminalize homosexuality and end homophobic attitudes that have made LGBT people strangers in their own countries and refugees when left with no choice but to flee. Let’s not forget the injustices faced by young LGBT people like Aurel in Cameroon and renew our resolve to end homophobia and support the rights of all young people.
ABONGWA VICTOR is the founder and CEO of Big Steps Outreach Network, a youth-led association for young people in Cameroon that has worked relentlessly to fight marginalization, inequality, HIV and AIDS, and other social ills that especially affect young people with disabilities, orphans and other vulnerable children, socially excluded youth, those living with HIV, and other young people, particularly out-of-school and out-of-work youth.