Ghana is unsafe for lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women, and this is a feminist issue. LBQ women are rarely part of national debates about women’s rights, and a deep undercurrent of heterosexist and socio-religious attitudes have resulted in their erasure within the Ghanaian feminist movement. LBQ women have often told me that some women’s rights spaces in the country remain a hostile and marginalizing environment for them.
In the past year, the LGBTI community has experienced an onslaught of human and civil rights violations, including the closure of an LGBT community centre, the arrest of 21 participants at an LGBTI human rights workshop in the Volta region and finally, the proposal of a draconian bill entitled “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values”, which has been widely condemned by international human rights groups. If passed, this law could see the imprisonment of LGBTI people for up to 10 years, forced conversion therapy and the criminalization of LGBTI advocacy.
As Ghana’s Parliament proceeds to review the proposed bill, it is crucial that mainstream feminist movements, campaigns and advocacy initiatives begin to seriously consider the rights of LBQ persons in the country. On International Women’s Day, March 8, we should highlight the protection of sexual minority women who live at the intersection of multiple oppressions by prioritizing them in the fight against gender inequality and homophobia.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch reported that LBQ women face violent persecution within their families in Ghana. They are denied access to financial support, forced into marriage, and experience physical violence from family members and discrimination within broader Ghanaian society. A 2019 needs assessment by the LBQT Consortium, painted a similarly grim picture. It highlighted that LBQ women and transgender people lack access to sustainable employment, adequate housing and healthcare services, and are at high risk of depression and substance use.
Similar experiences have been reported by LBQ women in other parts of the African continent. Anecdotally, stories abound in Ghana about women being gang-raped or forced into conversion therapy after being accused of engaging in same-sex intimacy. Pressure from family members and others effectively forces some lesbian women to marry men, exposing them to threats of harm, blackmail, and violent reprisals, if outed.
‘Unnatural carnal knowledge’ is criminalized in Ghana under Section 104 in the Criminal Code which criminalises “sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner or with an animal”. This code is a colonial remnant typically interpreted as targeting male homosexual intercourse. While the criminal code is silent about lesbians, news stories have highlighted arrests and discrimination, including the arrest of a lesbian couple last March in the Eastern Region for allegedly organizing a wedding ceremony. In November, the University of Professional Studies, a public university, suspended two female students for allegedly engaging in a threesome with a young man, citing the university’s policy against “lesbianism.”
And in the now infamous case of the Ho21 in May 2021, 21 people were arrested for attending a paralegal training session on LBTQ rights in Ho, Volta region. Sixteen of them were identified as women and remanded for over three weeks without bail in cramped female cells, and taunted by police officers, for getting “caught at [a] hotel doing lesbianism”. However, much of the queerphobic violence reported in the media has focused on violence against gay men and transgender women. The harm experienced by lesbian, bisexual and queer women has received much less attention.
There are no official government statistics about LBQ women in Ghana. The funding priority within LGBT space has been on HIV/AIDS prevention and health services and men who have sex with men. This has created a resource gap for LBQ women, and dangerously, a perception that LBQ women do not face comparable harm. Ironically, this invisibilisation often heightens and normalizes violence against LBQ and gender non-conforming women, making it both difficult and deeply necessary to build a case for LBQ-centred policies and advocacy initiatives.
Sexism and Homophobia: Two sides of the same coin
In January, Sam George, a Member of Parliament from the National Democratic Congress widely known for spearheading the proposed anti-LGBTI bill, described his 2022 political commitments during an interview to “broaden the scope of gender equality in [Ghana] to go beyond…the girl-child”. He goes on to suggest that many boys are being left behind because of the overemphasis on girls, stating that “We’ve reduced the whole gender ministry to a feminist thing”.
In a country where women earn far less than men, face high rates of gender-based violence, and hold only 14% of parliamentary seats, it is curious that a parliament member would suggest that the plight of boys can somehow be attributed to an overemphasis on feminist issues. It is not surprising that one of the most vocal proponents and sponsors of Ghana’s proposed anti-LGBTI bill also alludes to decentring girls in a ministry that was ostensibly created to address their structural disadvantages.
His comments are reminiscent of the growing anti-gender movement that seeks to roll back the gains of feminist and LGBTI rights movements across the globe. This movement uses sexism and homophobia to maintain traditional gender roles and inequality. Within this patriarchal frame, women and sexual minorities are positioned as socially and morally inferior, undeserving of full human rights and dignity. LGBTI identities often disrupt the heteropatriarchal through-line that one’s biological sex criteria should correlate to a specific gender identity that is subsequently attracted to the (only) opposite gender for the purpose of procreation to preserve the so-called “natural family.”
This rhetoric has deep consequences for LBQ women in Ghana whose lives are dangled at the intersection of sexism, homophobia and socio-religious conservatism.
Homophobia is a Feminist Issue
Like most women in Ghana, LBQ women are up against some major barriers, including a lack of access to decent work and bodily autonomy, gender-based violence and workplace discrimination. LBQ women also have the added barriers of homophobia, which can result in family isolation, sexual violence from men, and discrimination while attempting to access health care.
Unfortunately, most of Ghana’s mainstream gender advocacy and feminist initiatives fail LBQ women by centring cisgender heterosexual women’s issues. Anti-domestic violence efforts, for example, typically prioritize services for (assumedly heterosexual) women experiencing violence in their relationships with men. National campaigns to promote girls’ access to education rarely show how structural discrimination and school expulsions prevent students perceived as lesbians from accessing their constitutional right to education. Reporting violations to the police as a queer woman may expose them to detention and secondary trauma.
There is much to be done in the Ghanaian feminist movement to address the deep harm that queer women experience. Homophobia is a feminist issue because it is rooted in a heteropatriarchal framework. Our fight for gender justice demands reframing our political imaginations and an end to laws and practices that criminalize and violate women based on their sexual orientation.
In the last decade, Ghana has seen a growing LGBTI movement, with many LBQ women becoming organizers, community mobilizers and speaking boldly in digital spaces about the increasing attacks on their communities. As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, there has never been a time more urgent for feminists and LGBTI activists to have more political clarity and solidarity. LBQ women in Ghana deserve to feel safe, cared for, and counted within the Ghanaian feminist movement.
*This article uses the term LBQ to refer to sexual identity. This framing is inclusive of lesbian, bisexual and/or queer women (cisgender and transgender) and/or all non-binary people who identify as LBQ.
Dr. Rita Nketiah is a feminist activist based in Accra and Researcher in the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @RitaNketiahPhD