“The attitude of the religious is really what triggered the creation of associations for the defense of LGBT rights”

Jean-Paul Enama, is executive director of Humanity First Cameroon, a Cameroonian association that fights against HIV among vulnerable populations and also defends sexual and gender minorities. Created 11 years ago, the association has around fifty employees and around twenty volunteers, most of them peer educators present throughout the country. Last November, Jean-Paul Enama led a delegation from Humanity First Cameroon, invited by the association Solidarité Internationale LGBTQI+ (SIL) to come and strengthen ties with the community in France. It was on this occasion that we interviewed him to tell us about the actions of this association in a country which maintains close ties with France.

Komitid: What is the HIV situation in Cameroon?

Jean-Paul Enama: The 2018 Camphia survey showed an HIV prevalence of 3.7% in Cameroon. But a 2016 survey showed a much higher prevalence among men who have sex with men (around 37%) and for sex workers. The Ministry of Public Health has set up actions, health programs largely financed by the Global Fund and by PEPFAR (US program to support actions against HIV/AIDS, editor’s note) with these populations. For the past ten years, identity associations have been taking action to reduce new cases of infection. At Humanity First Cameroon, 85% of our employees are supported by these programs.

In terms of prevention, PrEP is still in the trial phase, there has been no scaling up. Just MSM, trans, TS. In the association, 200 people (MSM, trans people, sex workers) are enrolled in PrEP programs.

What is the legal situation of LGBTI+ people in Cameroon?

Article 347-1 of the Penal Code punishes anyone caught in flagrante delicto of a homosexual act with a sentence of up to five years in prison. But behind this article of law, there are many abuses, because it requires flagrante, on the basis of presumption, arbitrary arrest. Sometimes even confessions. Apart from this law, there is also a law on cybercrime which punishes exchanges between people of the same sex on the Internet. If these exchanges lead to a sexual relationship, the penalty is doubled. We had a case of a beneficiary who had been convicted under this section 83 on cybercrime.

For trans people, what is in place?

Trans people suffer more. It is often perceived as witchcraft. The law says nothing. Legally you can’t change your ID. We had the case of a woman but it is very exceptional.

“We opened the Gender and Female Leadership Unit, and since 2013, we have had an approach to include women in everything we do”

You also say that you act on issues relating to women’s health and rights. How ?

The association is divided into several departments including health, human rights, HIV, etc. The women approached us because they are victims of gender violence. To be inclusive, we opened the Gender and Women’s Leadership unit, and since 2013, we have had an approach to include women in everything we do. We set up a project with SIL, in Cameroon women’s football is gaining more and more ground, so we were able to use sport to send messages of tolerance. We are sometimes blocked in our projects because often projects targeting women receive funding if the association is exclusively dedicated to women or if the leader is a woman. Or else the board of directors must be made up of half women. We also make sure to encourage the hiring of women from the LBT community.

How does society view homosexuality? Does religion occupy an important place in public debate in Cameroon?

The attitude of the religious is really what triggered the creation of associations for the defense of LGBT rights. We could indeed see how religion exploited homosexuality, explaining for example that it is because of homosexuals that there is no work in Cameroon. It is a factor that conveys homophobia in Cameroon. In our mother tongue, there is no word for a homosexual. People justify acts of hate in the name of religion. People often say: it’s not part of our habits and customs, we don’t recognize homosexuality. However, there are studies that have shown the opposite. We are writing a media training guide. We are often brought to speak and if we have religious men politicians sociologists, who have very strong arguments to justify homophobia or homophobic acts. We, opposite, need arguments and this guide will be distributed to all activist associations in French-speaking Africa and elsewhere.

More and more, we go to religious even if it is difficult. We are raising awareness among traditional chiefs, but the work does not seem to be bearing fruit up to our ambitions.

Why is it important to work with SIL or Solidarité sida. What does this bring you concretely?

This is important to give an international scope to our actions. We are in Africa, we work, we work, but people don’t really know what we are doing. SIL makes it possible to promote the actions we carry out in the field. Under no circumstances can SIL implement. There’s always the accusation that it’s Europe that exports homosexuality, so we didn’t want our actions to be tinged with that cliché.

We believe that it is also good North-South collaboration that must be maintained, avoiding the trap of imperialism and colonization. We speak for ourselves.

What do you expect from France and Europe?

France and Cameroon have had relations for a very long time. We expect support for our actions, for it to continue to maintain the dialogue with our government because our government recognizes us on the health aspects but on the work on human rights, it turns its back on us. We expect France to continue to relay our struggles, our suffering, and to be our ally. Financial and technical support are welcome, but also to facilitate the visa application. For the activists who have chosen to stay in Africa, this is my case, I do not intend to settle on European soil, I would like to have this facility with regard to visas.

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