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Why lesbians are staying hidden in the Congo

Gay and bisexual women face brutality, forced marriages, exclusions, and even accusations of sorcery in the DRC
Congo: Women face hardship and lesbians doubly so.
Photo by Julien Harneis.

In its own discreet way, the gay male scene is tangible in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Online, gay men connect anonymously in search of friendship, romance, and serious relationships. In Kinshasa's bars, they enjoy relatively safe spaces. But in either of these venues, lesbians are scarce, if not invisible.

It takes a mere Google-search of ‘gay men, DRC’ to generate multiple pages of personal ads. Dating websites abound with personal advertisements posted by and targeting men. In contrast, an online hunt for ‘lesbians, DRC’, ‘gay women, the Congo’, or other variations proves futile. It quickly becomes apparent they only have a minimal online presence.

In Kinshasa's nightspots, the results are similar. While soaking up cocktails and pulsating music at Le Klub, one of the city's most lively dance clubs, Luc, an outgoing 28-year old Congolese IT professional effortlessly pointed out a constellation of other gay men on the dance floor. ‘That guy? Gay. That guy? Also gay. And that guy's been hitting on me all night long.’ But could he point out a lesbian? ‘I don't know any,’ Luc shrugged.

Yet the question is not just about visibility. As a rule, women, and by extension lesbians, are more often victimized than men. This rule is even more pronounced in the DRC; the country ranks 186th (dead last) on the Gender Inequality Index, a tool developed by the United Nations Development Program to reflect inequality in achievement between women and men.

Moreover, the United Nations' Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, branded the country as ‘the rape capital of the world’.

Si Jeunesse Savait (SJS), a feminist organization working for the sexual and reproductive rights of women in the DRC has researched the situation of lesbians in Kinshasa. Their investigation was the first ever in the country to tackle the topic. In speaking to 100 lesbians in Kinshasa, they found that the women often face brutality from their families and wider communities. They also discovered instances of forced marriages, exclusions, and even accusations of sorcery.

‘We know of one case where a young woman was sent back to her village by her father so that they could deliver her from evil spirits,’ said Monique Ntumba, a sociologist and member of Si Jeunesse Savait.

In another case, a woman was pushed into a forced marriage when her family discovered her sexual orientation.

‘She even had children with the husband. But one day, he caught her with another woman and nearly beat her to death. He sent her back to her family, but they wouldn't have her either,’ continued Ntumba.

This type of rejection increases the vulnerability of Congolese women. Mayra Gomez, co-executive director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a human rights NGO, recently submitted a shadow report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. In the report, she raised concerns about the discrimination of women in the DRC and listed the ways in which they are excluded in terms of land and housing rights.

‘I would suspect that to some extent the issues [faced by lesbians] are similar. Most often women are only able to access these resources through their connection to a man [father, brother, husband, uncle, etc]. Women who would be considered “alone” [ie without a male] face discrimination in the allocation of land, as men are often seen as the only legitimate holders of land rights.’ said Gomez in an email.

That is not to say gay men have it easy. Though the former Belgian colony does not legally condemn same-sex relations between consenting adults, article 40 of its constitution states ‘Each individual has the right to marry the person of their choice, of the opposite sex.’

Even so, women already lag behind men socially and economically in the DRC. Conceivably, homophobic attacks as discovered by Si Jeunesse Savait would leave lesbians more vulnerable than their male counterpart.

Between the Gender Index and Si Jeunesse Savait's research, their situation appears bleak.

However, the picture is also hazy. Since SJS' research only interviewed a small sample of participants in Kinshasa and the Gender Index does not differentiate women by sexual orientation, the full extent of discrimination against lesbians in the Congo is still unclear. This or rather they, remain to be seen.

Valérie Bah lives and works in Kinshasa and writes on LGBT issues.

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