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Rwanda: Activists want trans and intersex legal rights

Alex Ngarambe in Kigali, Rwanda
September 15, 2023

Rwanda has a progressive attitude toward LGBTQ+ issues, but human rights NGOs want more legal recognition and protection for transgender and intersex people to ensure they don’t suffer further discrimination and stigma.

A Rwandan model holds a rainbow flag
While more progressive than some of its neighbors, some in Rwanda still harbor a level of hostility toward trans and intersex peopleImage: Simon WOHLFAHRT/AFP

Maily Isaro, a transgender woman in the Central African nation of Rwanda, has faced various forms of discrimination since publicly coming out as trans.

She lives in a country that is considered progressive on LGBTQ+ issues — particularly when compared to its northern neighbor, Uganda, which earlier this year enacted one of the most draconian anti-LGBTQ+ laws on Earth. 

Ghana's laws already criminalize gay sex by forbidding "unnatural carnal knowledge," but the West African country wants to go a step further in its efforts to outlaw the LGBTQ+ community.

Rwanda does not criminalize same-sex relationships, however members of the LGBTQ+ community have criticized the government for not sufficiently protecting them from stigma and violence.

Young people are particularly affected, and many have dropped out of school because of stigma, Isaro told DW.

"Most of them are forced to leave school [...] because of discrimination, isolation and all those kinds of bullying at school so with most of them, their level education is still a problem," she added. 

Activists call for changes to Rwandan laws

Human rights activists in Rwanda are now pushing for legal reforms that properly recognize transgender people — those whose gender does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

The activists also want changes that give intersex people — those who have physical sex characteristics that are not exclusively male or female — the freedom to live their lives.

They are calling for the government to amend Rwanda's family and persons law that restricts the sex of a person to being male or female. The same statute states that a person's sex is the one recorded on their birth certificate.

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The law, which dates back to 2006, has hindered the rights of intersex people, according to Andre Uwayezu, founder of the Wiceceka Community Support Organization, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights.

Intersex people are often subjected to surgeries that alter their anatomy to conform to either male or female binaries. Such procedures are often carried out during infancy without consent. 

"Intersex rights are violated where they get one organ removed on the orders of their parents. This is a problem that should be looked at broadly because this is a way a person was born," said Uwayezu.

'I have faith in Rwanda's tolerance'

There is nothing to suggest that Rwanda will welcome any move to amend its current LGBTQ+ laws , but Uwayezu said the country's progressive approach toward the issue provides hope.

"I have faith in Rwanda's tolerance, and I am sure children born this way are ours and we must create a comfortable life for them like all other Rwandans where male, female and others are recognized, like in other countries including in Africa where at airports we fill male, female and others," he said.

Francis Byaruhanga, a Kigali-based lawyer, also harbors similar hopes of a safer environment for intersex people.

He said it's possible for Rwanda's law to change in the future because laws are not set in stone but rather can evolve with changing times and circumstances. 

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"It is possible they can change the definition of sex, which the law describes as male and female. Because of research by the UN that sex orientation can be opposite-sex or same-sex, I think the law can be reviewed so that it aligns with the times," Byaruhanga told DW.

Rwanda is considered tolerant when it comes to members of the LGBTQ+ community hosting hotel seminars and organizing public pride celebrations — events that are banned in other African nations. 

Activists now hope there could be a freer environment for trans and intersex people if Rwanda's laws can be amended to give even greater recognition and protection.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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