In December 2009, the lower House of the Rwandan Parliament was set to vote upon a revised Penal Code, Article 217 of which would have made homosexuality a criminal offence for the first time in the East African nation.
The proposed Article 217 would have criminalised “[a]ny person who practices, encourages or sensitises people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice.” It would impose prison sentences of between five and ten years for those convicted of homosexual acts. The “encouraging and sensitising” aspects would have meant a ban on counselling and could have impacted on health services for gays and lesbians. Proposed fines range from 200,000 to one million Rwandan francs (£216 to £1,090).
In the wake of the Ugandan Bill, it seemed in the autumn as if a wave of actions hostile to LGBT people was going to spread across Africa, demonizing and further criminalizing gay people. This hasn’t happened in Rwanda, where, following strong action from diplomats and human rights activists in the region, Tharcisse Karugarama, Minister of Justice, declared this week that the Rwandan government “cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality”, reaffirming that sexual orientation was “a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation – this is not a State matter at all.”
The proposed Bill had been condemned by LGBT group Horizon Community Association of Rwanda (HOCA) and the Coalition of African Lesbians. HOCA president Naomi Ruzindana said back in December: “Our country and our people refuse to recognise the fact that we exist. As far as they are concerned, there are no lesbians or gays in Rwanda. Well, we are here, we exist. We are ordinary people like everyone and all we want is for our people and our government to recognise our existence and the fact that it is our basic human right to live our lives the way that we want and choose.”
Michael Cashman MEP, Co-president of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights, has congratulated the Rwandan authorities on their decision, saying: “In a context increasingly repressive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in African countries, Rwanda did the right thing by refusing to criminalise homosexuality. This is yet another example of Rwanda being a role-model for African nations. The European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights calls on other African nations to follow the lead of Rwanda, and abide by Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.”
In November 2009 Rwanda became only the second non-former British colony to be admitted into the Commonwealth.
Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is deeply involved in Rwanda as well as Uganda, but there is no record of him making a statement opposing the bill in Rwanda. Neither has AMiA, the Rwandan branch of ACNA, issued a statement. In February 2007 the Archbishop of Rwanda, Emmanuel Kolini, equated homosexuality with moral genocide, and the consecration of Gene Robinson with “satanic attack on the church of God.” In September of 2007 he made it clear he favours the criminalization of homosexuality, saying, “Even when the government decides to legalise homosexuality our church will not accept it its totally illegal and un-Godly.” There is no record of Archbishop Kolini having spoken about the Rwandan bill.
I was curious as to why the Bill in Uganda has received such huge attention in the media and why the Rwandan Bill has been quietly dropped with no apparent discussion in the media nor reaction from conservatives in the church. One of Changing Attitude’s Rwandan contacts tells me that it’s a difference of culture. No-one commented about the Bill in Rwanda because people don’t say what they really think. As a result of the genocide, Rwandan’s now make decisions as if they were a family, and once the government dropped the Bill, they all dropped it. The government does all the talking, and if the government isn’t saying much, the people don’t say much. The contact described Ugandans as being more liberal than Rwandans. Liberal isn’t how I’d describe Uganda attitudes to sexuality! Others will know Rwanda culture and society better than me and may have more information as to why the Bill has been dropped.