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Ghana has a mixed record on its treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It criminalizes “unnatural carnal knowledge” in section 104 (1) (b) of its Criminal Offences Act, which the authorities interpret as “penile penetration of anything other than a vagina.”  However, the law is a colonial legacy that is rarely, if ever, enforced, 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. At least two government agencies, the Ghana Police Force and the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), have reached out to LGBT people and taken proactive steps, including through providing human rights training workshops to help ensure their protection. Nevertheless, LGBT people are very frequently victims of physical violence and psychological abuse, extortion and discrimination in many different aspects of daily life, because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

This report is based on interviews conducted between December 2016 and February 2017 in Accra (Ghana’s capital), Tamale (the capital of the northern region of Ghana), Kumasi (the capital of Ashanti region in southern Ghana) and Cape Coast (capital of Central region in southern Ghana) with 114 Ghanaians who self-identify as LGBT. It documents the human rights impact of section 104(1)(b) of the 1960 Criminal Offences Act (Act 29) on the lives of LGBT people in Ghana. Despite the rare, if any, prosecutions under this provision, Human Rights Watch found that the criminalization of adult consensual same-sex conduct contributes to a climate in which violence and discrimination against LGBT people is common. The retention of section 104(1)(b) – commonly referred to as the anti-gay law – is often seen as tacit state approval of discrimination, and even violence, on the basis of real or imputed sexual orientation and gender identity. The law also contributes to a social environment in which there is pervasive violence against lesbian, bisexual and gender non-conforming women in the home and LGBT people more generally in communities where they live.

This report documents how dozens of LGBT people have, on numerous occasions, been attacked both by mobs and members of their own families, subjected to sexual assault, intimidation and extortion. For instance, in August 2015 in Nima, Accra, a young man was allegedly brutally assaulted by members of a vigilante group known as Safety Empire simply because they suspected he was gay. Also, several men described being severely beaten by mobs of young men—often after being lured into compromising situations and blackmailed on social media.  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.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ghanaians interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the combination of the criminalization of adult consensual same-sex conduct and the profoundly religious and socially conservative Ghanaian context has an insidious effect on their individual self-expression. All the interviewees said that they either felt they had little choice but to adopt self-censoring behavior, or worse, deny their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid suspicion by family members and the communities in which they live. Numerous interviewees told Human Rights Watch that in certain instances, such suspicion has led to violence, extortion and arrests.

Lesbian, bisexual women and transgender men are frequently victims of domestic violence.  While Pearl’s story of being subjected to a mob assault for being a lesbian is horrific, violence against this group of women in Ghana often takes place in the privacy of their own homes–the place where they ought to feel the most secure. The report details the ways in which the intersection of gender and sexual orientation renders gender non-conforming women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. While recognizing that the legal framework affects the lives of LGBT individuals generally, it is imperative to highlight the abuse that lesbian and bisexual women are subjected to in the private sphere, particularly by family members who exercise domination and control over women’s lives, bodies and sexuality.

Numerous lesbians described being threatened with violence, beaten and driven from their family 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; since then, she has not been able to go back home to visit her two-year-old daughter. Most lesbian and bisexual women told Human Rights Watch that they have no choice but to hide their sexuality from their family members and that they are expected to marry men and have children, thereby conforming to family and societal expectations. A young woman from Kumasi said that when her family suspected she was a lesbian, they took her to a prayer camp where she was severely beaten over a period of one month to “cure” her of her “deviant” sexuality. Prayer camps, run by privately-owned Christian religious institutions with roots in the evangelical or Pentecostal denominations, are supposed to serve as a refuge for people seeking spiritual healing. According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, there are several hundred prayer camps in Ghana.

Many LGBT Ghanaians told Human Rights Watch that their lives have been torn apart because of the stigma associated with homosexuality; the fear of violence perpetrated by family members and others in the community and homelessness, should their sexual orientation be disclosed. The negative public discourse about LGBT people, who are referred to in derogatory terms in public spaces, combined with the risk of physical violence has severe psychological implications. Many interviewees said they constantly struggle with the stress associated with hiding their sexuality, thus living double lives, to stay safe. Facing the risk of family rejection, many succumb to the pressure to marry. Others, ostracized from their families, find themselves with few economic options, leading some to rely on sex work as a means of survival.

LGBT victims of crime said the anti-gay law inhibited them from reporting to authorities for fear of exposure and arrest. Ghana’s laws ought to protect everyone from violence, but fear that the anti-gay law could be used against them, combined with social stigma, serves as a barrier to seeking access to justice. Felix, a young man from Kumasi told Human Rights Watch that in 2016 he was raped by a man he had met on social media, but did not report the rape to the police out of fear that he would be arrested for having “gay sex”.

In one high-profile case, Accra police arrested a suspect in a vicious mob attack against a gay man in August 2015—but his case has still not gone to trial, leading LGBT people to question whether it is futile to seek justice in the aftermath of homophobic and transphobic violence. While the police effectively investigated the case, the prosecutor who was assigned to the case in the Fast Track Court in Accra failed to appear in court.

Ghana is a country of profound contradictions. Despite its status as a liberal democracy, with a constitution that guarantees fundamental human rights to all its citizens, a relatively responsive police force, and an independent national human rights institution, the government has consistently rejected calls by United Nations bodies, including the Human Rights Council during the Universal Periodic Review of Ghana’s human rights record, to repeal the law against “unnatural carnal knowledge.” Ghanaian society is also very religious.  According to a survey conducted by Gallup International Association, approximately 96 percent of the population claim to follow some form of religious belief system. Christianity, the dominant religion in the south and Islam in the north play a significant role in Ghanaian culture and society, and inform the view that homosexuality is an abomination and contrary to religious beliefs and teachings.  

Human Rights Watch found that since 2010, and notably from February 2017, a few opinion leaders including government officials and parliamentarians have called for further criminalization of LGBT people. In February 2017, the Speaker of Parliament, Professor Mike Ocquaye, referred to homosexuality as an “abomination” and reportedly called for stricter laws against same-sex conduct and in July 2017, during a public discussion with Amnesty International about prospects for abolishing the death penalty, he equated homosexuality with bestiality.

Homophobic statements, not only by local and national government officials, but also local traditional elders, and senior religious leaders, contribute to a climate of homophobia and in some cases, incite violence toward people on the basis of real or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity.

On a positive note, in June 2016, during the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, the official delegation of the Permanent Mission of Ghana to the United Nations in Geneva affirmed that Ghanaian law prohibits persecution and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Ghana’s is also party to several regional and international human rights treaties, and has accepted procedures for individual complaints but unfortunately this has yet to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people realize equality. Retention of provisions prohibiting “unnatural carnal knowledge,” failure to proactively address violence and discrimination, and the role of some politicians in inciting homophobia combine to relegate LGBT Ghanaians to what can be described as second-class citizenship. This report documents the enormous gap between the official government position articulated in international fora regarding protection from violence, and the daily abuses that LGBT people fall victim to in their homes and communities. Human Rights Watch found that despite positive initiatives from CHRAJ and from some individuals within the Ghana Police, the government is thus far failing to adequately protect LGBT persons from violence.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Parliament of Ghana to repeal section 104(1)(b) of the Criminal Offences Act, which criminalizes consensual adult same-sex conduct. The Ghanaian government should comply fully with the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendations and adopt measures to monitor and report on hate speech and to protect LGBT persons from all forms of discrimination, intimidation and violence. Human Rights Watch strongly urges the government of Ghana to effectively implement Resolution 275 of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which requires all African states to take positive steps to end violence and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Ghanaian authorities should act swiftly to protect LGBT people from violence, whether committed by state or non-state actors. In doing so, the authorities should engage in a constructive dialogue with the LGBT organizations 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.