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Sub-Saharan Africa, encompassing 46 of the 54 countries on the African continent, has some of the world’s most restrictive legislation against LGBT+ people, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex organisation (ILGA).

In its 2020 report on the state of LGBT+ rights worldwide, the ILGA said same-sex sexual acts continued to be illegal in 25 of the 46 countries (54%). At one extreme, in Nigeria’s 12 northern states, the death penalty is the legally prescribed punishment (12.7 MB, PDF) for consensual same sex sexual acts. In many African countries LGBT+ people may be stigmatised and excluded from society. Many are forced to hide their identities in fear of their safety.

There have been some significant developments in the region, however. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage (it’s the only African country where this is legalised). In 2015, 2019 and 2021, Mozambique, Angola and Botswana each decriminalised same-sex sexual relations.

This briefing describes the status of LGBT+ rights in 22 sub-Saharan African countries, including both legal and societal forms of discrimination. These include employment, access to healthcare and involvement in civic life. These are often hard to measure and our analysis depends on the availability of data. Where relevant, each country profile sets out UK Government actions to promote LGBT+ rights. Further reading is also included for some countries depending on availability of material.


We have used the acronym LGBT+ in this briefing paper (except where we are quoting someone else’s words). This refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The ‘+’ symbol is used to include people whose identities do not fit typical binary notions of male and female, or who decide to identify themselves using other categories to describe their gender identity or their sexuality. In the countries we focus on, the legislation is largely around same sex sexual activity rather than gender identity.

This paper should be read as correct at the time of publication.

Legislative restrictions

Across sub-Saharan Africa, legal discrimination is, in part, a legacy of colonial-era laws. In 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May apologised for the UK’s role in criminalising same-sex relations in its former colonies.

Many governments have not taken steps to reform these laws. While enforcement and legal penalties vary, the fact they remain on the statute-books suggests the threat of legal enforcement remains and anti-LGBT+ discrimination may be tolerated.

Some countries have also gone further in tightening restrictions. In 2021 the the Uganda Sexual Offenses Bill was passed, which includes a clause criminalising same-sex relationships.

Societal attitudes and discrimination

Where there are limited legal protections, discrimination can also affect the ability of LGBT+ people to access health and other services. This can lead to greater inequalities, such as increased HIV prevalence, access to jobs, and experience of hate crimes.

Polling by Afro Barometer in 2016 and 2018 suggested that only around 20% of Africans would like, or not care, if they had an LGBTQ person as a neighbour.

UK Government actions and statements

From 2019 to 2022, the UK Government is funding the Strong in diversity, bold on inclusion project. This explores LGBT+ inclusion in sub-Saharan Africa. Focusing on five cities it will “engage with religious, community and business leaders, politicians, the media, and other social influencers, to advance equality and achieve significant shifts in discriminatory attitudes.” 

UK aid projects also seek to support greater representation for LGBT+ people in politics and government, and assist in the drafting of new legislation to address discrimination and violence.

Successive governments have said that the promotion and protection of the human rights of LGBT+ people internationally is a priority.

The UK Government had planned to host the international conference, Safe to Be Me, in June 2022 to bring together countries, businesses and international civil society organisations to address global LGBT+ inclusion.

However, following the Government’s decision to introduce a ban on conversion therapy for gay or bisexual people but not for transgender people in the 2022 Queen’s Speech, many UK charities withdrew from attending. The Government subsequently announced it would cancel the June 2022 conference.

Further reading

BBC, LGBT+ rights in Africa (rolling commentary and news)

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