3-10 Women Arrested for Being Lesbian in Cameroon: Gender Bias in Anti-Gay Prosecution
Recently, BBC news reported that three women — allegedly involved in a love triangle — in Cameroon have been arrested on suspicions of practicing homosexuality. Other sources state that ten women are being detained before trial, but it’s difficult to ascertain the exact number of women charged due to the remoteness of the area.
According to the Washington Post, homosexuality is considered criminal in Cameroon and punishable by a jail sentence of six months to five years, plus a fine of 200,000 francs. But this case may be a first for Cameroon; until now, men have been the primary target for anti-gay arrests.
In September 2011, Alice Nkom, a gay rights defense attorney and founder of the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals, led an AllOut.org campaign to draw attention to the country’s aggressive anti-gay crackdown during which ten men were apparently snatched from their homes and public places and thrown in jail:
One of them, Jean-Claude, has been sentenced to 3 years in prison merely for sending a text message to another man. I’ve heard countless recent stories of homophobic violence throughout the country. I’m 66, and in ten years of defending lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) people in Cameroon, it has never been this bad.
Despite receiving over 70,000 signatures, including a strong backing from the international human rights community, three men were sentenced to five years imprisonment — the maximum sentence — for alleged “homosexual acts” a few months later. At the onset of the trial, Nkom insisted to BBC that the men were targeted for dressing feminine and that their only crime had been to wear women’s clothing.
Worth noting is that there haven’t been any (reported) incidents of similar raids or arrests involving women. Still, rigid perceptions of gender roles have long been theorized as the root cause of homophobia; men are more frequently met with public shaming and arrests, but this does not necessarily mean that human rights violations against women based on their gender presentation and/or perceived sexual orientation aren’t happening.
Women are vulnerable to attack by neighbors and acquaintances who suspect them of same-sex interest. All parties know that if the attack is reported, the victim could be arrested under Article 347 bis of the Cameroonian penal code.
According to a a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, Criminalizing Identities: Rights Abuses in Cameroon based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity:
Women are more likely to be controlled and punished for same-sex relationships in the family sphere than in the public sphere. In one manifestation of this control, Cameroonian women have little freedom of movement and their access to public space is highly restricted, which only means they are less likely to be arrested during a police raid on a gay bar. However, women are also more prone to abuses in the private sphere than men are.
The report asserts that this “control” of women in Cameroon is further reinforced via strict gender roles:
… the men of a family control the intimate lives of the women of the family… Researchers found that the community also singles out men and women who are not fulfilling the desired roles of masculinity or femininity.
As with this newly reported case, the women were arrested after the husband of one of the alleged lesbians reported the matter to the police.
This case, originally reported on February 20th, has been adjourned until 8 March 2012, with the women being detained till then. In an interview with the Advocate, Nkom describes the treatment of LGBT people in prison as inhuman, horrid, violent. By the time the case is revisited, the women may have been in prison for over two weeks, prompting concern for the women’s safety.
No other information has currently been made available, but updates will be posted once more details have been confirmed.