Photo: Martina Bacigalupo

A new law that criminalises homosexual conduct threatens to exacerbate the deplorable treatment of gays and lesbians in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said in a multimedia project published this week.

The project, Forbidden: Institutionalizing Discrimination against Gays and Lesbians in Burundi, consists of printed and online narratives, photos, and voice-recorded testimonies of Burundian gays and lesbians that bring to life the daily struggles faced by the small lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Burundi.

Members of the community talk about how they have been fired from their jobs, beaten by parents and neighbourhood youth, and evicted from their homes.

According to Human Rights Watch, the LGBT population had just begun to speak up and organise – demanding an end to discriminatory treatment in workplaces, schools, and homes – when the Burundian government struck back, adding to the criminal code in April a provision that criminalises “sexual relations with persons of the same sex.” Individuals convicted under the new law can be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

“The government needs to listen to these voices to understand the harm it is doing to Burundians with its state-sanctioned discrimination,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should rescind this law and instead work to promote equality and understanding.”

The testimonies presented in Forbidden, alongside Martina Bacigalupo’s powerful photographs, give a public platform to a population in Burundi that has long been silenced.

The individuals interviewed described Burundi’s new law as a huge step backward. Cynthia, a 25-year-old waitress, told Human Rights Watch: “I was shocked when I heard about the new law against homosexuality. I want them to give us liberty. We are people like everyone else. It’s God who created us. The law won’t change us.”

Even before the law was passed, Burundian LGBT people faced significant obstacles to acceptance by society, as recounted by the 10 people interviewed for this project. Carine, for example, a 37-year-old lesbian from a small town in Burundi’s interior, describes how she lost a teaching job when her sexual orientation was discovered. She was harassed at another job by a male colleague, who on one occasion locked her in a room and threatened to kill her.

Pascal, starting when he was five years old, was beaten regularly by his parents, who considered him effeminate. As he said: “They thought that by beating me, they could change me.” Many of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, most of them young, had been kicked out of their homes or disowned by their parents.

Human Rights Watch called upon the government of Burundi to listen to the voices of Burundi’s gays and lesbians, and to urgently reform the criminal code so as to end state discrimination against this group of Burundian citizens.

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