YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - During a dreary Sunday morning church service, 14-year-old Viviane - tired of wrestling with her sexual attraction to girls - resigned herself to an unhappy conclusion: she was bewitched.
At school and at church in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, she had long been told that liking someone of the same sex was not only a sin, but could also be a sign that a sinister spell had been cast on you.
“I didn’t see girls like everyone else - I thought it was a bad spirit that had invaded me,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation with a rueful laugh by phone from France, where she sought asylum last year with her girlfriend’s help.
“So I started praying to make it go away.”
But her prayers failed. Four years later, Viviane was chained to the wall and violently raped by a man who her family forced her to marry after discovering that she was a lesbian.
From South Africa to India and Ecuador, gay people are subjected to ‘corrective rape’ by their families, strangers and vigilantes who believe that homosexuality is a mental illness that needs to be ‘cured’.
Sometimes it is done under the cover of darkness or when the pounding of rain on tin roofs muffles the screams, gay Cameroonians told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Other times, it is arranged by family members who regularly take the law into their own hands, torturing, raping and murdering gay and lesbian relatives that they are convinced are witches or have been cursed.
Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Cameroon. Even though it is illegal to practice black magic, authorities do little to stop families consulting sorcerers who perform ritual sacrifices to ‘cure’ their relatives of homosexuality.
Same-sex relationships are taboo across Africa, which has some of the world’s most prohibitive laws against homosexuality. Gay people are routinely blackmailed, assaulted and or raped, with criminal punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.
A 2017 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) found 33 African countries out of a total of 54 nations criminalize same-sex relations.
Homosexual acts attract a five-year jail term in Cameroon, with at least 50 people convicted for crimes ranging from cross-dressing to a man texting “I love you” to another man between 2010 and 2014, according to CAMFAIDS, an LGBT+ advocacy group.
“The (anti-LGBT+) violence is getting worse,” said Michel Engama, head of CAMFAIDS, whose predecessor, Eric Ohena Lembembe was found dead in 2013, with his neck broken and his face burned with an iron, according to Human Rights Watch.
Almost 600 homophobic attacks and violations were reported in Cameroon last year, according to Humanity First Cameroon, an LGBT+ umbrella organization, with one in five lesbians and one in 10 gay men reporting that they had been raped.
Campaigners say the true scale of the problem is likely to be much worse as most attacks go unreported.
Viviane’s family beat and lashed her after they discovered explicit text messages she had sent to her girlfriend.
Her aunt and brothers then took her to their village where the local witch doctor forced her to drink concoctions made of chicken blood and inserted hot pepper up her anus, justifying it as a “cleansing” ritual.
Finding a husband who was a church pastor was a chance to clear the family name, she explained. The fact that he had two wives and was more than 30 years older was not a consideration.
“There was no discussion about it,” she said, adding that her family received the dowry from the pastor even before they informed her of the arrangement.
“To them, I was like a necklace they sold.”
Though rape is a crime in Cameroon, there was no question that such a charge could ever be leveled at her husband, Viviane said.
“A pastor in Cameroon is like a god. God can’t rape. And if you accuse him of rape, you’re the devil,” she said.
While Viviane felt her best option was to flee Cameroon, Frederique spoke out after she was gang raped in 2016 by a taxi driver after leaving an LGBT+ workshop in Yaounde.
The driver stopped to pick up another man and took her to a deserted part of town, where they both raped her, taunting her with accusations of being a lesbian and a witch.
“They kept shouting that I deserved this punishment, that they were correcting me,” said the 33-year-old, who has told her story to hundreds of girls in sexual health awareness and LGBT+ workshops in Cameroon.
“If I had reported it, I would’ve been seen not as a victim but rather as someone who deserved what had happened.”
She believes that her decision to speak out saved her life.
“I had a friend who had also been raped, and she felt completely alone, isolated, depressed. She had almost killed herself,” Frederique said, pausing to fight back her tears.
“I thought of doing the same ... But I was also so angry. I didn’t want other girls to go through this, for them to be a victim like me. I wanted to denounce the perpetrators so that it stops.”
It is not easy, she said. Lesbians in Cameroon live with secrecy and caution every day, communicating via code names and frequently changing the public places where they gather.
“We continue to fight on, even though we’re doubly discriminated – first as women, secondly as lesbians,” she said.
But Engama of CAMFAIDS knows that such precautions cannot guarantee safety, highlighting how 20-year-old Kenfack Tobi Aubin Parfait was beaten to death last month by his older brother who believed he was gay.
“It’s a real war waged against us,” said Engama, who regularly receives death threats.
“But we will keep fighting until they are tired ... No one will give us freedom. We have to take it.”