It is illegal to be a lesbian in almost a quarter of all the countries in the world, according to a new report Breaking the Silence: Criminalisation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women and its Impacts, published today, in the run-up to the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia next week.

The new report is the first ever global in-depth analysis of how laws against homosexuality specifically impact lesbians and bisexual women. It is produced by the Human Dignity Trust, a legal charity that supports challenges to anti-gay laws wherever they exist in the world

Laws that criminalise homosexuality exist in 78 jurisdictions worldwide, or 40 per cent of all countries, including 80 per cent of Commonwealth countries. Of these, at least 44 jurisdictions criminalise consensual same-sex intimacy between women. Despite a general global trend towards decriminalisation, at least 10 jurisdictions that previously only criminalised gay men have recently added new criminal sanctions against lesbians.

Further, Breaking the Silence finds that even where lesbians are not captured by the criminal law they have been subjected to arrest, detention and police abuse as well as severe forms of state-sanctioned family and community abuse. Any form of law that criminalises LGBT people engenders discrimination against the entire LGBT community. As such, lesbian and bisexual women are at serious risk of persecution in any criminalising country.

Baroness Barker, Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights – UK Parliament said: “This is a ground-breaking piece of research. There is not another document in existence that looks so comprehensively at the legal and social impact of anti-gay laws on women who have sex with women. It is an important document for anyone working to help lesbian and bi women live in safety and with dignity the world over”.

Lesbians and bisexual women are particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of human rights abuses due to the combination of their gender and sexual orientation, the report finds. These violations include family violence, forced or pressured heterosexual marriage, and so-called ‘corrective’ rape. Importantly, lesbians who have no practical choice but to enter straight marriages may have little or no control over their sexual and reproductive choices, enduring in effect a lifetime of invisible, undocumented and state-sanctioned rape. Moreover, the laws criminalising consensual female-female sexual conduct often exist alongside other laws that disproportionately impact on women, such as laws against adultery and abortion, or those permitting child marriage or marital rape.

Lesbians and bisexual women are uniquely exposed to specific kinds of human rights abuses as a direct result of both their sexuality and gender.

Téa Braun, Director

Lesbians and bisexual women are also likely to be at an economic disadvantage by virtue of gender discrimination, further limiting their ability to resist familial pressures, leave abusive situations or live independently of a male partner, according to the findings in Breaking the Silence. The overlap between the discrimination these women face as a result of their sexual orientation, and the ways in which their freedom is limited by their gender, puts these women at a unique risk of experiencing human rights abuses.

Breaking the Silence highlights why approaches to addressing LGBT persecution need to cater for the specific needs and contexts of lesbians and bisexual women. And equally, why efforts to enhance the position of women worldwide will always be undermined by the criminalisation of homosexuality. The aim of eradicating violence against women will never be realised while lesbians and bisexual women are made targets of violence by laws that criminalise them on the basis of their sexual orientation. Conversely, Breaking the Silence reveals that countries with greater gender equality are less likely to criminalise homosexuality in any form.

Breaking the Silence: Criminalisation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women and its Impacts is the first in a series of ‘Briefing Notes’ to be released by the Human Dignity Trust looking at the wider impact of criminalisation on the diverse groups that make up the LGBT community. The second in the series, which is in its research phase, will look at the experience of transgender people.

Justice Edwin Cameron, Constitutional Court of South Africa, said:

“The Human Dignity Trust’s report crucially reminds us that LGBT people are not a homogenous group. Lesbians and bisexual women, as a sub-group, experience distinct and additional human rights violations from those of gay men. For these women, the ‘intersectionality’ between discrimination against women and homophobia creates a lethal combination.”

Otibho Obianwu, Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative, Nigeria, said:

“Importantly, this Briefing Note captures the unique human rights violations lesbians and bisexual women face as compared with gay men. It deeply resonates with our experiences in Nigeria.”

Téa Braun, Legal Director of the Human Dignity Trust, said:

“Thus far, the global research and legal advocacy in respect of the criminalisation of homosexuality has largely treated LGBT people as a monolith. However, lesbians and bisexual women are uniquely exposed to specific kinds of human rights abuses as a direct result of both their sexuality and gender. We hope this report will trigger greater discussion about how efforts towards gender equality and LGBT equality can mutually reinforce one another, and thereby help to address the serious and systemic human rights abuses experienced by some of the most silenced and vulnerable women across the globe.”

Download the full report: Breaking the Silence: Criminalisation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women and its Impacts [pdf]


For further information, or to request an interview, please contact:

Téa Braun, Legal Director, [email protected]

Kapil Gupta, Projects Information Officer, [email protected]

For general inquiries: [email protected]

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