Ghana’s young Rotaract Club of Adentan were bold enough to invite human rights campaigner and lawyer, Nana Oye Lithur, to talk about lesbian and gay rights at their meeting. As an organisation that trains leaders, to work within communities and to uphold ethical standards, it seemed an appropriate topic for them to engage with.

The issue of homosexuality is a minefield in Ghana, with a confusing colonial law against “unnatural carnal knowledge”, arguments around culture, religion and highly emotive arguments.

Ms. Lithur, half-jokingly, began by saying there is not really anything to talk about as the 1992 Constitution guarantees all citizens human rights – end of story!

The Legal Position

She did, however, recognise the social stigmatisation of homosexuality in Ghana whilst making clear that the law is not against homosexuality. The ambiguous phrase of “unnatural carnal knowledge” is interpreted in Ghana as criminalising anal sex which, Ms Lithur acknowledged, was engaged in by male-female couples in Ghana too. You cannot arrest a man or woman for being homosexual but would have to prove, in a court of law, that anal sex had occurred.

Health

She mentioned that statistics show that HIV is highest amongst female sex workers, prison guards and homosexuals. Combating HIV and sexually transmitted infections amongst the latter group is a challenge when homosexuals are stigmatised, forcing them hide and often marry women. The Ghana Aids Commission has a national strategy to combat HIV amongst the homosexual community but stigmatisation means that they and other health sector groups are too scared to talk publically about it.

The Constitution

Ms Lithur returned constantly to the role of the constitution in the informing law.

Besides guaranteeing human rights for all citizens, the constitution also ensures the right to dignity which she said prohibits the kind of degrading statements made by some religious leaders.

Article 17, whilst not specifically mentioning sexual orientation, does not automatically mean discrimination based upon sexuality is allowed.

She mentioned cases of human rights abuses that her organisation, The Human Rights Advocacy Centre, have dealt with. This has included physical assaults against homosexuals, including sexual abuse by police, and the recent assaults and destruction of properties of those suspected of being lesbian or gay in James Town by a small group of self-styled, vigilante men.

Religion

Ms. Lithur touched on her position as a Christian, believing it was against her beliefs to shun others and discriminate against them, based on the example of Jesus. Encouragingly, arguments from religion were not the main concern of the Club members.

Conclusion

Ms. Lithur summed up by stating that the rights of others should be respected, the state should not determine who has sex with who, morals are individual and one person’s moral beliefs cannot be enforced on others, and that we should appreciate and respect diversity.

One bizarre issue that reoccurred a few times from questions from Club members was the idea that in a same sex relationship, one person becomes the opposite gender. It was asked why, if a woman is having a relationship with another woman who “becomes” a man, why didn’t she go with a man? A young woman in the audience clarified that people do not become another gender in a same sex relationship or necessarily act in such as way.

The general atmosphere was one of thoughtful and calm discussion although, disturbingly for a room of university graduates, many myths and misconceptions surfaced on this topic. It is not possible to say how many of the Club agreed or disagreed with Ms. Lithur but the willingness to engage with this topic in a dispassionate way bodes well for the future.

Further Reading

Nana Oye Lithur: Deepening Human Rights Culture