Photo above: human rights defender Samuel Opio from Uganda
‘Living as a gay man in Uganda is a major challenge. Because of the religious and cultural traditions of our country, homophobia is a real problem. On several occasions, I have truly feared for my life', says human rights defender Samuel Opio from Uganda.
'I have been beaten up several times and followed by the State. I never know who I can trust. When I came out at the age of 23, my family immediately banished me from their lives. They gave me a year to leave the house I grew up in. I left the next day, with a few clothes and some cherished possessions. That was back in 2003. It was the last time I saw my family.'
Showing who I am
‘Coming out as a gay man gave me a lot of strength. Finally I could be who I am. The first year I survived by working as a prostitute on the streets. Later I met my boyfriend and he took me into his home. That gave me the opportunity to become an activist and fight for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. A few years ago I set up the organisation Queer Youth Uganda. With support from embassies and civil society organisations, we’re trying to strengthen the LGBTI community in Uganda. There’s still so much violence against people of a different sexual orientation, it remains dangerous for us to do our work in the open. So, for example, we hold secret workshops to raise people’s awareness. Fortunately, I can see change taking place in Uganda. The government accepts the existence of LGBTI organisations and we are more visible in the community. The next step is to change the law. Only then will we be able to be open about our sexual orientation. '
‘It means a lot to me that the Shelter City Initiative of Justice and Peace Netherlands gave me the chance to spend three months in Utrecht. In Uganda I have rarely felt safe, but in the Netherlands I always did. Thanks to the training I was given in digital and physical security, I now know how to run my organisation safely. And on the practical side, thanks to the fast internet connection I had, I was able to do as much work in two days as I would normally do in 20 days at home. I was also given the opportunity to share my story with large groups of students at Dutch universities. All of this has given me new energy to continue my struggle in Uganda more vigorously than ever. Together with my colleagues. My real family.’
All over the world, thousands of human rights defenders risk their lives to campaign against human rights violations. Every year, Shelter City offers 15 of them three months’ safe haven in Amsterdam, The Hague, Middelburg, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Utrecht, Groningen or Tilburg. Shelter City is an initiative of Justice and Peace Netherlands in association with municipalities, government ministries, NGOs and universities. Director Sebastiaan van der Zwaan explains, ‘We’ve expanded Shelter City into a national venture. That commitment is crucial because by working together we can help human rights defenders do their work more effectively.’
Frank Huisingh, a policy officer with a special focus on human rights defenders, adds, ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides financial support and arranges visas. I also represent the Ministry on the committee that decides which human rights defenders can come to the Netherlands. Selection is a difficult task. We have to weigh up important issues like the degree of threat they are under, and whether it will be safe for them to go home after their stay in the Netherlands. Our aim is for them to continue their work as human rights defenders with renewed energy and new knowledge and contacts. Shelter City is one of the ways that the Netherlands is helping these courageous people do their important work. And we will continue to offer this support in the future.’
Equal rights for LGBTI people
The Netherlands protects and promotes human rights all over the world, including freedom of expression, equal rights for women and equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI). We have a clear policy on the rights of this group as a whole: everyone must be free to be who they are. Sadly, homosexuality is still a crime in over 70 countries, and punishable by death in some. This is why equal rights for LGBTI people is a priority of Dutch human rights policy.