“It is like seasons – sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t,” explains 23-year-old Clara, a transgender activist in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city.
“In this season the rain is high. The current situation is very bad,” she tells SBS.
Recently, the government crackdown on the LGBTI community in the east African country has worsened.
Most recently, 40 private drop-in clinics offering HIV/AIDS services to “key populations” – such as gay men, transgender people and sex workers – have been banned. Health minister Ummy Mwalimu accused them of “promoting homosexuality”, stating that the government was announcing new guidelines for these people.
Although lesbian sex isn’t against the law, a colonial era penal code prescribes anything from 30 years to life imprisonment for gay male sex.
A program supported by The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and implemented by Save the Children to assist key populations eligible for HIV treatment in Tanzania has been put on hold, until the government releases the new guidelines.
A Global Fund-supported grant to distribute water-based lubricants ended as scheduled in December. Mwalimu announced last year, when the backlash began, that lubricants were also being banned for “promoting homosexuality”.
“The Global Fund is in constant engagement with the government of Tanzania and remains hopeful that a solution to ensure continued access to health services for key populations affected by HIV will be found,” a spokesperson tells SBS.
UNAIDS says that “condom and lubricant programming is highly effective in preventing sexual transmission of HIV”, with lube being “highly important” for gay men, sex workers and post-partum women.
The effect of the ban on lubricants, and other moves made by the government remain to be seen, but Clara believes HIV will rise.
“Before the introduction of lubricants, the HIV spread was high, but after, rates of HIV and other STIs lowered,” she says.
Clara works for an organisation formed in 2013 by LGBTI sex workers, which aims to support LGBTI people and fight for LGBTI rights. For safety reasons, she preferred not to name the organisation.
Sitting in an empty office, Clara says that her workplace is usually full, but the current political climate has forced them to quit outreach activities. Staff no longer feel safe to come to work, she says, because “people may notice and they may report us”.
“I cannot walk home or to the office even though I’m not living very far from here, because on the street they stare at me and may follow me,” she continues. “We can get arrested.”
Nguru Karugu, a health and rights consultant at The Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA), says that in Tanzania, transgender people are particularly vulnerable.
“Their visibility makes them easy targets and as the situation deteriorates in Tanzania we expect increased violence targeting this community,” he says.
Sidney, an activist who describes herself as gender non-conforming, tells SBS that organisations working on LGBT+ issues are trying to stop the spread of HIV “through education”, but in doing so, are being treated as “criminals”.
“The authorities talk about ‘promotion, promotion, promotion’,” she says.
“They’ll make a new law then once you’re caught on promotion…” Sidney adds, referring to neighbouring Uganda, which introduced a law criminalising the “promotion of homosexuality” in 2014. It was later annulled.
One MP tried to introduce a similar law in Tanzania the same year, but it was later shelved. Now, there’s fear that the government could be whipping up hatred against LGBTI people in order to justify the re-introduction of this legislation.
The backlash against LGBT people is part of a broader campaign against other sections of society such as drug users and the media. Activists say this began in the first half of last year, just some months after President John Magufuli - known for being religious and conservative - was elected.
“The media has faced what seemed to be an unprecedented crackdown,” says Neela Ghoshal, a researcher in the LGBT rights division of Human Rights Watch.
“The government seems to be increasingly unwilling to tolerate dissent and public criticism and all of this is pretty worrying in a democracy.”
While the current season is stormy for Tanzania’s LGBTI community, there is the view among some that the crackdown on LGBT+ issues is being employed as a diversionary topic.
“When the government know they have done something very bad and everyone is talking about it, they raise the homosexuality topic in order to make people stop talking about that bad thing,” says Clara. “They use LGBT people as a strategy to defend themselves.”
Repeated attempts to reach Mwalimu and deputy health minister Dr. Hamisi Kigwangalla were not successful, although Kigwangalla has vented against homosexuality on Twitter in recent weeks.
“The war against promotion and normalisation of homosexuality in Tanzania is real,” he warned on March 5, among other Tweets. “I commend recent efforts by the police force on our cause.”