Reflecting on Nairobi’s Colourful Workplaces Conference

February 15, 2018

Fabrice Houdart,

The front line in the battle for Human Rights of LGBTI people has reached Africa’s workplace

In 2014, I was struck by a CNN interview with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Nigeria’s finance minister, in which she was asked about her country’s new draconian anti-LGBT law which had been signed just two months before. The “Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act”  criminalized public displays of affection between same-sex couples and restricted the work of LGBTI organizations. Her response was: “It took 40 to 50 years or more [of] conversation [for] the gay community to get where the U.S. is. I think that [..] we need a conversation in [Nigeria]. […] Ninety-six percent of people support these laws.”

My two immediate thoughts were: 1) we do not have 40 or 50 years; and 2) for conversations to happen in Nigeria, conversations on LGBTI issues need first not to be outlawed.

Why we don’t have 40 or 50 years

We do not have 40 or 50 years to tackle elevated levels of homophobia and transphobia in Africa because the widening gap between the experience of LGBTI people in more tolerant countries and “hostile environments” is unsustainable. The shift in public attitudes that more privileged LGBTI people experience in urban areas in most tolerant countries and the suffering of marginalized LGBTI people in more hostile places is creating an unprecedented urgency. The difference between the situation in the USA in 1969 and that of many African countries in 2019 is that today African LGBTI people have access to the relatively accurate media portrayal of LGBTI people in more equal parts of the World. They know that they are entitled to a life of dignity and opportunity. They know that there are places in which they can occupy the right place in the humanity they belong to. They know there are places where their family can be treated with the with the inherent dignity they deserve.

LGBTI migration from Africa is accelerating

During my fifteen years at the World Bank, I covered parts of the African continent, the DRC initially, some African Regional Economic communities afterwards, Egypt and eventually the Maghreb. In the last two years at the United Nations, I traveled to Kampala, Addis-Abbaba and Nairobi. In all parts of the continent, I met people who identified as LGBTI and dreamed to break free from the prejudice and bigotry that thwarted their lives. Although it is extremely difficult to track, there is strong evidence that LGBTI migration from Africa is accelerating (see my July 2014 post: Pink Migration – rising tide of LGBT migrants?). In many places, including Kenya, centres for LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees are reporting a tremendous increase in demand. LGBTI people have always left rural areas and small cities for larger urban areas but increasingly they are attempting to migrate to more tolerant countries.

Yet, extracting every single LGBTI people from hostile environments is not feasible and not a solution. Giving up the struggle and moving to some place where others have won the battle for Human Rights of LGBTI people is also not an option that most LGBTI people in Africa consider: they want to fight for their rights.

“Anti-gay propaganda” laws frustrate hopes for social change

My second reaction to Ngozi’s response was that “anti-gay propaganda” laws such as the “Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act” actually frustrate any hope for social change. As the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights at the time, Navy Pillay, said in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, also in Mach 2014: “The law violates international law in that it is discriminatory and seriously impinges on the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly”. In the 60s and 70s, the American LGBT community at least benefited from these basic Human Rights. In Africa, as illustrated by the recent censorship of the movie Inxeba in South Africa in the name of protecting traditional cultures, this remains often not the case.

Social change on LGBTI issues must accelerate on the African continent. That means not only achieving legal changes, but fostering a true revolution in hearts and minds. While only grassroots protest campaigns can ultimately win this fight, all stakeholders must work together to design innovative ways to achieve progress. Faster progress. Progress lies in using all the tools at our disposal including the support of the private sector. One of the best way to help Africa’s LGBTI community win their fight for equality is to continuously scale-up the engagement of the private sector on these issues including in fostering social change beyond company walls. In the words of the current United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights #Zeid: “If we are to achieve faster global progress towards equality for LGBTI people, businesses will not only have to meet their Human Rights responsibilities, they must become active agents of change.”

The Colorful Workplaces Conference

The Colorful Workplaces Conference, a one-day conference on diversity and inclusion organized on February 8th, jointly by Hivos, Workplace Pride and Sullivan Reed (whose MD Levis Maina is truly relentless), in Nairobi allowed actors in the corporate sector, employees and civil society organizations to share and discuss good practices and specific challenges on inclusive workplaces.

On that occasion, my office officially launched on the African continent the United Nations Standards of Conduct for Business on tackling discrimination against LGBTI people (#Biz4LGBTI). The Standards have already received the support of 67 global companies* representing more than 4.7 million employees and more than 1.86 trillion USD in revenues every year. As I mentioned in my speech on that occasion, because Africa is the new economic frontier offering average GDP growth of close to 6% per year in many countries, for many global companies it is also the new frontier on Human rights of LGBTI people. The two are intertwined. As an example, Unilever, one of the “early supporters” of the Standards, has been present in Africa for over a century and produces annual sales there of more than $5 billion, employing 40,000 people on the continent in offices and building factories in 40 locations. Its commitment to Diversity and Inclusion knows no border and it is already changing hearts and mind one employee at a time.

Unwavering commitments made by all companies present

I was struck by similar unwavering commitments by all the companies present at the Conference, such as Safaricom, Kenya’s largest employer, Barclays, IBM, SAP, Shell or Thomson Reuters. However, what resonated the most for me was the inspiring stories of LGBTI employees, such as Joshua Kwendo of SAP, who found a supportive environment in their workplaces and are now using this platform to empower other LGBTI people in their country.

The African movement for Human Rights of LGBTI people may have lost a battle against one Nigerian homophobic law in 2014, but it is winning a much more important one in many workplaces on the continent. The power to contribute to significantly change the life of LGBTI people is within the grasp of the private sector. We do not have to wait another “40 to 50 years or more [of] conversation” to build a better and more just world.

And the 67 “early supporters” of the Standards are ….

*As of February 2018, the 67 “early supporters” of the Standards include Accenture, Adidas, AirBNB, Airbus, American Airlines, A.T. Kearney, Avianca, Aviva, AXA, Baker McKenzie, Barilla, Ben & Jerry, Best Buy, Bloomberg L.P., BNP Paribas, BNY Mellon, Burberry, Cisco Systems Inc., Clifford Chance LLP, The Coca-Cola Company, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Dow Chemicals, Eataly, EDF, EY, Fidelity International, The Gap, Godrej Industries, Gol Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes, Google, Hermes Investment Management, HP, IKEA Group, Intel, The Lalit Hotels, Lloyd’s, Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, MAS Holdings, Marriott International, Mastercard, Microsoft, McKinsey, Nasdaq, New York Life, Oath, Orange, Ralph Lauren Corp, RELX Group, RBS, Santander Group, SAP, Simmons & Simmons, SNC-Lavalin, Spotify, Tesco, Thomson Reuters, Twitter, Trillium Asset Management, Unilever, Vert Asset Management, Virgin, Vodafone, Westpac and Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Xerox. 

About Author
Fabrice Houdart is a Human Rights Officer at the United Nations.

This blog article was originally published on LinkedIn.