Some campuses more accepting of LGBTI student organisations

At some universities in Zimbabwe, organisations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students have been formed – a small but historic step in the fight against discrimination on campuses.

Despite recent gains on the diversity front, challenges remain, activists told University World News.

Campus organisations for LGBTI students, however, were unthinkable in a country where same sex marriages were banned. The late autocratic president Robert Mugabe once referred to gays as “worse than dogs and pigs”.

However, the development on Zimbabwean campuses comes at a time when another African country, Uganda, has passed one of the world’s strictest anti-LGBTQI bills, stipulating long jail terms and the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which is having sex when HIV positive.

In Zimbabwe, student members of the LGBTI community who spoke to University World News noted that despite restrictive laws, the treatment of LGBTI students on campuses had been tempered with some tolerance from both fellow students and lecturers compared to Mugabe’s era – even though many challenges remain.

During a meeting in Davos in 2018, Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said while same sex marriages remain banned as per Zimbabwe’s constitution, “those people who want it are the people who should canvass for it,” adding that it was not his duty to campaign for it.

Observers were quick to note that he had left a window for engagement, a far cry from Mugabe’s outright persecution.

Lives ‘not in danger’

Tiniotenda Mufaro, a student at the Midlands State University, told University World News the absence of anti-gay rhetoric under Mnangagwa has trickled down to campuses in a small but notable way.

“Under Mugabe, gays were treated like enemies of the state but now we are not really a pre-occupation of the state. We do, however, know that there is a line that must not be crossed,” said Mufaro.

“In class there is no harassment. We have friends; lecturers let us be. Everyone concentrates on their studies and not what the next person is doing with his life. Obviously, some say bad things, but one can live with that.”

Rutendo Mwanaka, a University of Zimbabwe student, said she can freely post her pictures on social media platforms and there has been no backlash like in the days of old. She said the situation is the same on campus.

“Some people may talk negatively, but one thing [to note is that] our lives are not in danger like in the past. We have sometimes held our own functions and police have not been unleashed on us as was the case during Mugabe’s time.”

A different approach?

Mojalifa Ndlovu, a human rights expert, told University World News: “[W]hile the laws have not been changed, we do have a leadership that has a different approach… if the President [is] saying he is a listening president with the mantra of leaving no one behind, this is positive.

“If one looks deep into them, they speak of inclusion, tolerance. I want to believe maybe this is what has changed – unlike the hardcore stance that the previous republic had taken, this president has taken a diplomatic approach to remain inclusive,” said Ndlovu.

He said he also thinks that public opinion has shifted as people are becoming a little bit understanding and tolerant.

Ndlovu gave an example of some parents who now openly defend and offer support to their children on social media and some are defended, even by strangers, when they are being harassed over their orientation.

But what does the world of work hold for LGBTI students when they graduate?

“The shift is cross cutting. Some employers are clearly not discriminating against persons because of their sexual orientation or gender. They have non-discrimination clauses saying even if you are gay or transgender, you can't be discriminated against.

“The shift is not happening at the same time, everywhere, but it's these small drops, these small pieces, these droplets into the ocean that will make a huge difference. At the end, we are not here to force things down the throat of everyone. We want people to engage and understand these issues," Ndlovu said.

Remaining challenges

In a separate interview with University World News Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) Programmes Manager Teddy Munyimani said in recent years there have been efforts to improve the situation of LGBTI students at Zimbabwean tertiary institutions.

“Some universities have established LGBTI student organisations and counselling services, and there have been advocacy campaigns aimed at changing societal attitudes towards LGBTI individuals.

However, progress has been slow, and much more needs to be done to create safe and inclusive environments for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said.

Munyimani, however, said the country’s laws criminalise same-sex sexual activity, and societal attitudes towards LGBTI individuals are generally negative and the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary education has been denying the implementation of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).

SRHR programmes on campuses have been used as an entry point into universities by Galz and partner organisations to engage with the diverse pool of students.

He said Galz carried out a baseline survey on safe learning environments in tertiary institutions in 2022 that noted discrimination and harassment still persist.

“LGBTI students face discrimination and harassment from their peers and even from faculty members. This takes the form of verbal abuse, physical violence, and exclusion from campus activities.

Fear of coming out due to the hostile environment, many LGBTI students feel afraid to come out to their peers or seek support from university officials. This has led to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

“Many universities in Zimbabwe lack resources and support systems for LGBTI students. This includes counselling services, safe spaces, and LGBTI student organisations.

Poor academic performance also remains a challenge for students. Due to the stress and trauma associated with discrimination and harassment, some LGBTI students experience poor academic performance”, he said.