50.50: Investigation

Hospitals across East Africa offer controversial anti-gay counselling

Six-month openDemocracy investigation reveals ‘degrading and discriminatory’ treatment at health centres in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda

Lydia Namubiru Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu Rael Ombuor
2 July 2021, 12.00am
Illustration by Inge Snip

Hospitals and clinics across East Africa have offered or provided referrals for controversial ‘anti-gay’ therapies to ‘change’ individuals’ sexuality, according to a six-month special investigation coordinated by openDemocracy.

More than 50 LGBT people in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda described their own experiences of what is often called ‘conversion therapy’ – including electric shocks and hormone ‘therapy’ – to local researchers working with openDemocracy.

In addition, openDemocracy undercover reporters identified 12 health centres across the three countries – including those that specifically seek to reach gay men with health services – where staff offered help to “quit” same-sex attraction.

Our reporters were told: that being gay is “evil”, something “for whites” and a mental health problem; to try “exposure therapy” with “a housemaid [you] can get attracted [to]’’; and to give a gay teenager a sleeping pill to prevent him from masturbating.

“Whoever wants to quit homosexuality, we connect them [to external counsellors],’’ said a receptionist at an HIV clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Past counsellors, she said, have included Solomon Male, a vocally anti-LGBT evangelical pastor.

In Kenya, a counsellor at an HIV clinic in Nairobi said being gay is “a trend” and that some gay men are “trapped” into homosexuality by others. She claimed that to “change” same-sex attraction would take at least five counselling sessions.

In Tanzania, a counsellor at a clinic in Dar es Salaam said, in reference to an undercover reporter’s supposedly gay brother: “A timetable will be set, including the days that he should visit the hospital, until, finally, you find he has changed.”

None of the health facilities investigated publicly advertises ‘conversion therapy’, but workers offered it to undercover reporters on the ground.

‘Inherently degrading and discriminatory’

Efforts to ‘cure’ homosexuality are “inherently degrading and discriminatory” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Africa director at the International Commission of Jurists human rights organisation, in response to openDemocracy’s findings.

But they are “a lucrative business opportunity for individuals and organisations who are profiting out of humiliating, demeaning and discriminatory actions,” she said. In many cases, openDemocracy found people asked for payment for such ‘therapy’.

In Kenya, the Fountain of Hope rehabilitation centre outside Nairobi said they ‘treat’ same-sex attraction with a 90-day residential programme costing $23 a day – a huge amount in a country where around one-third of people live on less than $1.90 a day.

At this centre, Kalande Amulundu, its founder, told our undercover reporter (posing as the sister of a 19-year-old brother she suspected was gay): “unusual sexual orientation behaviour, that kind of thing. Yes, we deal with those.”

He suggested the facility could change her supposedly gay brother’s sexual orientation, but that “the best success rate is to get this person to be bisexual.”

However, when openDemocracy contacted Amulundu separately for comment after this visit, he said that our reporters had been “misled” and that the facility focuses on addiction and mental health and does “not offer any sex/sexuality treatments”.

‘My mistrust towards health institutions is very high. I could get very sick and not go for a check-up’

Activities to ‘change’ individuals’ sexual orientation have been condemned by more than 60 associations of doctors, psychologists and counsellors around the world.

Three countries – Brazil, Ecuador and Malta – have banned these practices, while Germany has banned them when applied to minors. The UK government has also recently committed to banning ‘conversion therapy’.

East African survivors of these practices described lasting effects on their mental health, family relations and general well-being. In most cases, their own family members had signed them up for these ‘treatments’.

One lesbian woman from Uganda said she was subjected to electric shocks as part of the ‘therapy’ she underwent at a clinic in Kampala. This took place a long time ago, she said, but “the resentment I felt for my family has never really gone away.”

A transgender woman in Tanzania said her mother took her to Sinza Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, where a doctor attempted to convince her that one cannot be transgender. As a result, she said, “My mistrust issues towards health institutions [are] very high. I could get very sick and not go and get a check-up.”

Two interviewees in Kenya recalled being given hormones (to make a gay man seem more ‘masculine’, and to limit a trans person’s ability to present in their gender).

Across the region

Sinza Hospital (which did not respond to our requests for comment) is one of several hospitals in Dar es Salaam in which our undercover reporters found health workers offering to ‘treat’ gay or trans people out of their orientation or identity.

In almost all cases, the ‘treatments’ identified by our undercover reporters in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda consisted of ‘talk therapy’ counselling sessions.

Anal sex is criminalised – and punishable with prison sentences – in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Uganda's recently passed sexual offences bill more broadly bans ''sexual acts between persons of the same gender'', but it is not yet law.

Additional reporting by Charles Kombe

Additional research by Joscar Amondi Oriaro, Cairo Kisango, Warry Joanita Ssenfuka, Leah Wamala Mukoya, Leah Mukoya Wamala and Geoffrey Ogwaro

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