Hugues is building a safe, tolerant and enabling environment for the LGBT population in Togo by creating a community that can peacefully coexist within larger African societies. He has created the first association for gay men in Togo and uses access to healthcare as a pivotal entry point for the promotion of their equality and human rights in the country and in West Africa.
The New Idea
38 of the 54 countries in Africa criminalize homosexuality. Togo is no exception and the offence is punishable by one to three years in prison or a hefty fine. It is a conservative country and most often, people hide their sexual orientation to avoid discrimination. Legal exclusion and homophobia prevents the LGBT community from fully accessing healthcare information and treatment, especially with regard to HIV/AIDS and STD prevention. With this in mind, Hugues Benissan decided to establish the first gay association in Togo to bring the LGBT community out of the shadows and create an enabling environment for the wellbeing of its members.
One of the first initiatives organized by his organization – Club des 7 Jours - was to document the existence and needs of the homosexual population. In partnership with Population Services International (PSI), Club des 7 Jours surveyed and determined the healthcare needs of this population in Togo. Based on this data, PSI invited Hugues to serve as an advisor in the creation of STD prevention toolkits. Hugues recognized that the community he was building could be mobilized for a larger purpose. The members, spread across the country, are trained as peer educators to provide information, support and the prevention kits to the LGBT population. He has also partnered with medical centers to build tolerance amongst hospital staff and train them on any specific healthcare needs. This has extended into a program with educators who are trained with information and asked to direct any young person discovering a different sexual orientation to his organization to provide mentorship and support.
Hugues’ work very quickly inspired the creation of other LGBT focused organizations. These three organizations work together to advance their social mission and have secured funding to establish a safe space for STD screening and testing for the LGBT population. They have now partnered to lobby for the decriminalization of homosexuality at a national level but simultaneously promoting tolerance amongst religious, social and traditional leaders from the bottom up. Hugues is now focused on the young homosexual population, going beyond sexual health to create occupational alternatives for those who are drawn into prostitution when they are rejected by their families and cannot find employment.
While there has been growing tolerance for homosexuality across the world, it is still unaccepted by most African communities. In fact, 38 of the 54 countries in Africa have criminalized homosexuality as a punishable offense. Somalia, Mauritania, Sudan and northern Nigeria have imposed the death sentence as punishment. Uganda has recently hardened its position with a law that not only punishes same-sex practices by life imprisonment but also criminalized any support for LGBT-related issues, prohibits any promotion of LGBT and makes it mandatory to report any homosexual individuals to the government. Even in Côte d'Ivoire, where homosexuality is not penalized, some human rights advocates are opposed to granting equal rights to homosexual individuals due to the influence of religion. Only South Africa has legalized same-sex marriage. Some countries do not openly penalize same-sex relationships and behavior but they create ambiguity and room for homophobia by not explicitly granting equality in their constitutions. Religion, social norms and superstition give way to very visible and often violent homophobia.
This is the case in Togo, where anyone who commits “an indecent act or act against nature with an individual of the same sex” is punishable with one to three years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Francs. Members of the Togolese LGBT community are victims of verbal abuse that often leads to physical violence or exclusion from the family, places of worship or work. There are very few national LGBT movements to promote equal rights on the African continent, with the exceptions of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mauritius. Without this, the health needs of the LGBT community are ignored or excluded in public health policy and efforts. Specifically, African LGBT individuals are generally ignored in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other STDs. In Togo, the incidence of HIV/AIDS is seven percent in the LGBT community compared to two percent incidence in the broader population. In Senegal, it is 21 percent in the LGBT community compared to 0.7 percent in the broader population. According to the 2007 study “Off the Map” (conducted by the International Commission for the Human Rights of Gays and Lesbians), LGBT individuals are excluded from programs fighting the epidemic across the African continent.
There are a few international organizations that are addressing this public health issue and most of these organizations advocate for the creation of local LGBT associations – for example, the French organization Aides created Afrigay to raise awareness and build community. However, these often disappear when funding runs out or their members leave the country to escape threats and violence. In Togo, the government has long denied the existence of the LGBT communities in the country. Therefore, organizations fighting against the spread of STDs cannot implement adequate programs for this specific population without risking penalization. As a result, there is also an inadequate supply of contraception. Often LGBT individuals live their lives undercover so they can receive medical attention. In the younger generation, youth do not know who to turn to or where to go when discover their sexuality and/or openly come out. They often cannot obtain employment. Rejected and destitute, they take to the streets and take up prostitution and delinquent behavior that only furthers the spread of HIV/AIDs and STDs. Without a united and strong local movement for tolerance, there will be no tipping point towards public health access for all in Togo and across Africa.
Hugues began his work in 2002 when he created the Club des 7 Jours (Group of the Seven Days) with six friends. However, fear of social pressure prevented him from officially launching the association until 2005. His first goal was to use this launch event to partner with Population Services International (PSI) to initiate an underground survey to prove to the government the existence of the homosexual population in Togo and to build out a specific health program for this group. Hugues invited people based on his search in Togo and well as in Benin and Ghana and gave PSI access to the very discreet community of men-who-sleep-with-men (MSM). The publication of the study in 2006 (“Gay Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS in Togo”) revealed that there are at least 28,000 MSM in Togo with two thirds of this population located in big cities such as Lome. Those who participated in the survey and interviews discussed problems related to access to education, healthcare and information about their rights.
With proof of this community’s existence in hand, Hugues became focused on preventing the spread of STDs amongst this population. He became the PSI advisor on designing awareness tools and STD prevention kits specifically for this community. While PSI played the role of creating and producing these tools, Hugues and his organization took on the role of distribution since they were embedded in local communities. Members of his organization are trained as peer-educators to spread information and kits. They also are trained to provide assistance to those going through the hardships of non-acceptance and discovering one’s HIV positive status. They host individual sessions and group meet-ups several times a week. They are located in four strategic cities and towns to ensure sufficient outreach across the country. In this way, Hugues’ organization is playing the critical role of peer distribution through a bottom-up membership based model that the larger, international organization is unable to effectively play alone.
Hugues also believes it is essential to build a sense of community to move towards long-term change. As part of this, his organization hosts large gatherings (often more than 400 people at a time) at night to show documentaries and facilitate discussions on prevention, self-esteem and healthy practices. Women, often through lesbian groups, are invited to create a mixed-gender space and provide a cover. They host an annual Mister and Miss Gay to celebrate each other and their community. Hugues is mobilizing this community to share information and build tolerance for MSMs outside the organization, most notably amongst hospital staff. They offer training for health center staff on providing specific healthcare services to MSMs. He is also mobilizing this community to provide support and a community for those youth who are discovering their sexual orientation. He works with educators to direct any young boy who is experiencing this to members of his organization so that they can provide support and mentorship to these young people. Hugues is also mobilizing this community to provide support to jailed MSMs. Collectively, they directly reach and support more than 2000 people a year in Togo.
Hugues’ work has inspired the creation of two new LGBT focused organizations. These work on separate issue areas but collaborate to gain support and funding for their work. Club des 7 Jours is focused on youth, Africa Arc-En-Ciel is focused on family tolerance and MENS works more broadly on human rights. Together, they have mapped cities in Togo by intervention area and secured funding from FHI 360 (Family Health International) and American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) to create a screening and treatment center for STDs that is open to lesbian and gay individuals. They are collectively involved in a project that monitors and reports homophobic assault and have created a Circle of Friends to ensure timely response to any such crime. As a result of these unified efforts, the National Program and the Committee for the Fight Against AIDS are now taking the LGBT community into account in their efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS. The Club des 7 Jours and other identity-related associations have been invited to advise them on providing for such marginalized groups. With the understanding that it will ultimately require large-scale constitutional change to solve this problem, Hugues is now working to win the support of policy makers. Members of all three associations have been trained on advocacy to judges, magistrates, policemen, and religious and traditional leaders. They have finally reached a point where they have a meeting organized bringing together ten people from each sector to help build tolerance and support for equal rights.
Hugues is now turning his attention to creating economic opportunities for LGBT youth to discourage a turn towards prostitution. There are many adults (often married) who take advantage of their vulnerability and offer them a lot of money in exchange for sex. This further exacerbates the spread of diseases. He has secured some funding from an international organization to pilot an initiative that makes it easier for these young people to open small business with training and funding. He is now working on systematic way to provide a second chance and dignity to these youth through employment opportunities in all sectors.
Hugues is the eldest of five children. His mother gave birth to him when she was sixteen years old and was not ready to take care of a child. Hugues learned to rely on himself from an early age and supported his mother in taking care of his younger siblings.
He dropped out of school in eleventh grade because they did not have enough money to support his education. He joined his mother in her tailor shop so that he could earn enough to pay for his studies the following year. With the pressure of school and financial considerations at home, he failed high school but was not discouraged, choosing instead to retake the exams in a different city. He passed with honors the second time and then completed a degree in computer science in Nigeria in 2000. He obtained a Higher Technician Diploma in Corporate Communications in 2002. However, Hugues wanted to pursue his passion for art and drawing and so completed a design course in Benin. Following this, he returned home to open a very successful, and now famous, design studio called Mozaik Fashion House.
Hugues understood his difference in sexual orientation from an early age. He also quickly realized the need for change and evolution in the society in which he lived. When he returned to Lome in 2002, there were many STD programs promoted in the national media. However, he noted that these were created by, and for, heterosexual individuals. It as then that Hugues decided to start a movement to defend MSM rights. Since the Togolese government has refused to recognize homosexuality, Club des 7 Jours is formally registered as an association working against HIV/AIDS.