Youth Fleeing Persecution Lacks Access to Social Protection in Liberia

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Monrovia – Mohammed Kamara, on a break from one of his classes, walked into the seaside apartment of his friend in a clustered community of corrugated roofs for a nap.

Then 17, Kamara, not his real name, was a newly minted high school graduate and a college freshman, studying public administration at a local university in Monrovia.

Community members, suspecting Kamara’s friend was gay, broke down the door and caught the duo making out, thirty minutes after he entered. “They dragged us outside naked as we were and started to beat us,” Kamara recalled as he wiped away tears from his eyes.

A female community member recognized him as the son of a prominent individual and intervened until the police could arrive. “They called my father but when he heard what happened, he fainted. I kept shaking and nodding my head – the only thing I wanted to do was to kill myself.”

Kamara and his friend, under the heavy crowd of the mob shouting homophobic slurs and armed with deadly weapons, were rescued by the police and taken to a nearby depot downtown adjacent the Palm Grove Cemetery and a notorious ghetto.

Then a teenager, he was placed in the custody of the Women and Children Protection Section of the Police while his friend, who was over 18, was placed behind bars.  The Liberian penal code considers sexual relations between a minor and an adult as statutory rape.

At the depot, he was met by his brother who was on hand to bail him out. “The police called journalists to take our pictures to make a big story but my brother protested against it,” Kamara remembered.

Lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth have greater vulnerability to a wide range of health, mental health and social problems such as eating orders, sexually transmitted diseases, school difficulties, forced sex, homelessness, violence and suicide, according to a report from the U.S. National Institute of Health.

“…being a young person who is a sexual minority can still be difficult in a society largely oriented towards heterosexuality,” the report stated. “Sexual minority youth can experience difficulties in multiple contexts. In families, for example, some LGBTQ youth have described their relationships with parents as distant or strained due to their sexual orientation, fear of victimization from family members, and a lack of acceptance from socially conservative parents.”

And Kamara said the incident left him traumatized and altered his life forever. “I dropped out of school because the news had spread like wildfire on campus. I cannot go back home because of my Muslim background—my brother told me I could be poisoned by some members of my family.”

His relationship with his mother soured while his father is yet to come to grips that his son is gay. He said he felt attracted to the same sex since he was 15 while studying in another West African country.

Kamara’s life took on a new trend as he began to wander off the streets, stopping with few friends until he was eventually referred him to a young man many youths in the Liberian gay community regard as a den father.

Albert Brown, not his real name, lives in a tiny and tidy apartment in Paynesville halfway shielded by a pseudo fence of scented flowers. Brown has a degree in sociology from a local university in Monrovia and is a social worker. He caters to Kamara and others from the income he earns moonlighting as a fashion designer.

“I see myself in him,” he said. “When he came to my place after hearing about me in a gathering, I could see how frustrated he was. His body had shrunk in size and he had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.” Brown said he counseled Kamara for weeks due to suicidal thoughts lingering in his head.

“He wanted to kill himself. His father disowned him and his brother cautioned him to watch his movements around other family members as they could kill him with poison or other means.”

The perils of Kamara’s situation lie in his religious and ethnic background. He hails from the Muslim dominated ethnic group within Liberia’s subregion.

According to Human Rights Campaign, “…depending on nationality, generation, family upbringing, and cultural influences, Islamic individuals and institutions fall along a wide spectrum, from welcoming and inclusive to a level of rejection that can be marked by a range of actions ranging from social sequestration to physical violence.”

It has been nearly two years since Kamara moved into Brown’s apartment, calling it home and believing it’s where his heart is.  He said he has been careful in his movements as he does not want to be seen by his family members. “I don’t know what they would do when they see me,” he added.

There is no known or underground safe home in Liberia for queer youths fleeing persecution and facing rejection from their families. Homosexuality is still viewed as an enigma by the government and much has not been done to protect sexual minorities in the county.

Former President Sirleaf, in an interview with The Guardian in 2012 she would not sign any law decriminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity. She would later backpedal in another interview at the UN, saying incorrectly that there is no law which criminalizes homosexuality.  Then-Senator turned Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor introduced a bill—which did not pass—to make it a first-degree felony.

Liberian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. Articles 14.74, 14.79 and 50.7 [of the Penal Code of 1976] consider “voluntary sodomy” as a first-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment. There has been no publicized case in recent years. But Liberian’s gay community says harassment and discrimination are widespread.

The director of the human rights division of the Ministry of Justice, Kutaka D. Togba, in an interview a month ago said there can only be progress in the protection of sexual minorities if the penal code is revisited and repealed, as it violates Liberia’s signatory to international conventions and treaties.

According to the latest U.S. Department of State 2018 report on Liberia, the country’s gay community faces extreme challenges

 An email sent to the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection on the availability of safe homes says there are safe homes for everyone. Eric Pervist, communications officer, said they have not had any case of anyone fleeing persecution from their families over their sexuality.

“The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection would like to inform you that its safe homes are for everyone and as of today’s date there has been no case of anyone ”fleeing apparent persecution” from their family for being gay/lesbian.”

 Maxwell Monboe, Coordinator of Liberia’s Initiative for the Promotion of Rights Identity, Diversity and Equality (LIPRIDE) which covers key population, said there are limited public service sexual minorities in Liberia.

“Human rights context for the last decade highlights Liberia as a deeply Patriarchal and homophobic society within the context of further criminalization of the LGBT population, limited public services to the community and rendering of the community as invisible.”

Abdullah Mohammed, 17, was in 11th grade when his grandmother pushed his door and caught him making out with his schoolmate. “We were in my room—we were just from partying and I forgot to lock the door and off the lights when my grandma pushed it,” he said.

He recalled a shout from his grandmother as she angrily slammed his door and went to her room. “I put my friend through the window with his clothes for him to escape,” Mohammed said.

Mohammed’s mother is a Christian while his father is a Muslim. He said a consensus was reached by his parents that he should move out when his grandmother called them.

 With no roof over his head amid the beginning of the 2018/2019 academic year, Mohammed mentioned he was coerced to drop out of school—his mother discontinued the payment of his tuition while his father, who lives outside Liberia, severed contact and support towards him.

“My grandmother told my entire community about me,” he said tearfully. Short on options in a nation which views homosexuality as an antithesis to its culture, Mohammed contacted a friend who referred him to Brown.

“One day he came to my house and explained to me his situation and I told him to move in,” Brown revealed. Catering to Mohammed and Kamara place a strain on his small income and extra earnings and Brown said he needs help to continue the upkeep of the duo.

The duo said they wish to return to school and Browne has already started making efforts for them to, while making sure it’s in the safest location possible.

“I told Mohammed to check at a nearby school on the cost of the tuition so he can finish his high school and I’ve also told Kamara to check at a nursing school here in the community—ain’t easy to pay their both tuition and I really need help from anyone to help me help them,” he pleaded.

Browne wants to go the extra mile but he’s short on options in a nation which hasn’t come to grips that sexuality is innate, and Kamara, Mohammed and many others may be left to live on the margins of a society which signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect them, regardless of the happiness of what occurs under the covers of the bedsheet.

Gboko Stewart is the founder of journalRAGE, an online human rights publication dedicated to the coverage of key populations.