A Cameroonian activist will be honoured in Toronto on World AIDS Day for his organization’s human rights work in a country where LGBT people face ongoing criminalization and violence.
Yves Yomb, executive director of Alternatives-Cameroon, is the international recipient at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s Awards for Action on Dec 1. The annual awards honour excellence and commitment to work that has a direct impact on HIV/AIDS and human rights. Yomb could not be reached for comment.
“Alternatives-Cameroon is on the frontlines of the global fight for human rights for people living with HIV,” says Joseph Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. “This brave group refuses to be silenced by adversity and remains an essential resource for so many LGBT people in a country that remains profoundly hostile and dangerous for them.”
Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, says Alternatives-Cameroon is doing courageous activism in an extremely hostile environment. Homosexuality is still criminalized and gay men are frequently prosecuted for consensual sex in the country.
In fact, there are more arrests for homosexuality in Cameroon than in any other country in the world, reports say.
“People are tortured in prison by authorities, and we see staunch resistance by the Cameroonian government to actually decriminalize gay people,” Elliott says. “In the last year, we have seen an escalation of violence against gay people.”
In June, Alternatives-Cameroon’s offices were torched, he says. Staff arrived to find that fire had destroyed their computers and the medical records of clients who had come in for HIV testing.
Last year, Yomb was featured in the documentary Born This Way, which profiles the lives of four young gay Cameroonians. Yomb, who bravely allowed the filmmakers to show his face on camera, said, “We are tired of pretending that gay people do not exist in Cameroon.”
In July, Eric Lembembe, an outspoken voice for gay rights in Cameroon, was tortured and killed in his home. In the wake of the murder, Cameroon’s ambassador to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Anatole Fabien Marie Nkou, responded by claiming the hate-crime motive was “just made up.” He added, “Look at the details of this person’s life and you will understand why he died.”
Responding to the murder at the time, Yomb told the Arcus Foundation that gay rights leaders in Cameroon are in danger. “Since I started my LGBTI activism, I’ve never been as afraid as I am now,” he said.
Cameroon is one of 35 countries in Africa and 78 countries worldwide where homosexuality is illegal. In eight of these countries, anti-gay laws as written could be interpreted to include the death penalty for some cases.
The Canadian recipient at the upcoming Awards for Action is the Grandmothers Advocacy Network (GRAN), made up of volunteer grandmothers from across Canada. GRAN is a Canadian voice for Africa’s sub-Saharan grandmothers who are caring for millions of children orphaned by AIDS. The group works for changes in Canadian policies to improve these families’ quality of life.
“The grandmothers are one of the key partners in the fight to reform the access-to-medicines regime,” Elliott says. “I know they are really thrilled to be recognized for the incredible work they do across the country. These are tenacious, smart, very methodical and organized women. They lobby MPs, meet them in their offices, petition, make phone calls. These are really great activists.”
The keynote speaker will be Svend Robinson, who is senior advisor for parliamentary relations at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The organization works to mobilize parliamentarians to support the work through donations.
“That’s a really key goal because getting money in place to actually fund the key HIV, TB and malaria services, whether it’s prevention or treatment, requires political will,” Elliott says.
At the Global Fund, Robinson brings his experience as a parliamentarian, a gay man, a gay rights activist and a social justice activist, Elliott says.
“Connecting with community is critical,” he says. “We know from experience that you need to work with communities that are at risk, empower those communities and make it safe for those communities to seek out HIV testing and come forward . . . At the Global Fund, Svend is bringing that human-rights and social-justice perspective to the organization.”