By Nita Bhalla
A proposal to criminalise LGBT+ people in Ghana is "a gross violation" of human rights and could set back a decade of progress fighting HIV/AIDS in the West African nation, according to the United Nations.
The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill, 2021, received a first reading in parliament on Monday. It will now be reviewed by a committee before going back to lawmakers for a second reading.
"This proposed legislation is a gross violation of the human rights of Ghana's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who already face high levels of violence, abuse,stigma and discrimination," said Patrick Brenny, who runs UNAIDS programmes across west and central Africa.
"UNAIDS stands squarely on the side of human rights,expresses its solidarity with LGBT people in Ghana and urges lawmakers to reject this bill."
Gay sex is already punishable with up to three years in jail in Ghana.
The draft law goes further by imposing a maximum five-year term for anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,transsexual, pansexual and non-binary - someone who does not identify as male or female.
It also makes advocating for LGBT+ rights, sympathising or offering help - financial or medical - to LGBT+ people or their organisations a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail.
According to UNAIDS, about 470,000 Africans living with HIV die every year because they cannot or do not get tested and so miss out on treatment.
Vulnerable groups include men who have sex with men, along with transgender people and sex workers who encounter persecution, stifling their chances of getting help.
Some 60% of the 350,000 Ghanaians living with HIV currently get anti-retroviral therapy. This drops to 3.7% for the estimated 55,000 men who have sex with men who are living with HIV in Ghana, data shows.
Brenny said while AIDS-related deaths in Ghana have fallen by more than a third to 13,000 since 2010, and new infections are down about a fifth - the bill would create "strong headwinds" against forging future progress.
"If passed, this legislation will have the certain effect of driving people further away from HIV prevention, care and treatment services and endanger the advances made," he said.
A 2019 study found thousands of gay men in Africa likely die from HIV-related illnesses every year due to homophobic laws.
Major foreign aid donors including the United States have also expressed concern over the proposed law and its fallout.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was concerned by "the increasing anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and actions" and was watching closely.
The United States is Ghana's top foreign aid donor, giving a range of projects more than $210 million in 2018/19, data shows.
The European Union, Britain and the World Bank - which have provided a total of $265 million in 2018/19 - urged Ghana to uphold protections enshrined in the country's constitution.
"The EU actively condemns discriminatory laws, policies and practices, including the criminalisation of consenting same-sex relations between adults or transgender identities," said an EU spokesperson.
A World Bank spokesperson said that "institutionalised discrimination" had serious consequences in everyday life.
"When laws are enacted that prevent people from fully participating in the workforce, economies suffer," he said,urging Ghana to embrace "equality of opportunity".
Thomson Reuters Foundation