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Harsh laws and hatred thwart fight for gay equality in Nigeria

By Astrid Zweynert

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Habibah, a Nigerian lesbian, was forced by her family to marry a man, who raped her on their wedding night, while Somadina was told she would die early because she calls herself queer.

Their experiences are documented in a new report by the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which promotes social acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Nigerians.

"The spectrum of hatred and discrimination against LGBT people is very wide in Nigeria, and forms part of deep-rooted cultural attitudes," said Bisi Alimi, director and founder of the foundation.

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The 41-year-old was the first Nigerian to openly declare his sexuality on national television, coming out in 2004. Facing threats to his life thereafter, he moved to Britain where he now lives with his husband.

The foundation surveyed almost 450 LGBT Nigerians, all of them aged over 18 and either still living in Nigeria or who had left the largely conservative country within the past decade.

Violence and harassment is widespread in Nigeria where homosexuals can be imprisoned for up to 14 years for expressing their sexual orientation, according to the report, which is due out on Friday.

Some 55 percent of respondents said they had been physically attacked or threatened with violence at home or work in the past decade, while 54 percent had experienced threats and harassment online.

The survey found 71 percent of respondents believed this abuse was due to their gender identity or sexuality.

Violence is widespread but victims often do not report it because of police discrimination, the report said.

Stigma, family rejection, community exclusion and isolation are also common, adding to the mental stress of hiding their sexual orientation, the report found.

With the highest HIV prevalence rate of any country in West and Central Africa, discrimination against gays in healthcare services can have serious consequences, the report said.

Twelve percent of respondents said they were told by doctors or nurses their health problems were their own fault, and another 12 percent reported experiencing verbal abuse from doctors or nurses.

FAR-REACHING LAW

Nigerians involved in a gay marriage or civil union face imprisonment for up to 14 years under a law introduced in 2014.

Named the "Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act", it purports to legislate against people of the same sex marrying but it has far wider reaching implications, said Alimi.

Dubbed "Jail the Gays" in the media, the law stipulates that anyone who registers, operates or takes part in gay organizations, or makes a public show of a same-sex relationship, will be punished with up to 10 years in prison.

The implementation of the law prompted a crackdown on gays and increased violence despite international condemnation.

While previous legislation already criminalized same-sex conduct, the 2014 law officially authorizes abuses against LGBT people, effectively making a bad situation worse, a report by Human Rights Watch said in October 2016.

"When this law came into force, it opened a door of hate and legalized prejudice," Alimi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The main issue for LGBT people in Nigeria is not same-sex marriage - but being able to live a life free from rejection, assault and abuse."

Alimi said he hoped to change public perceptions by providing facts about the life of LGBT people in Nigeria.

"There has never been data on homophobia in Nigeria," he said. "We hope that by building a database that documents the discrimination, we can bring about change and galvanize a change in attitudes."

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)

 
 
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