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Coercive conversion therapy must be done away with


Siviwe Gwarube is a Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance, serving on the Health Portfolio Committee. She also serves as the DA’s National Spokesperson.

Historically, homosexuality was considered a pathological condition that needed to be ‘cured’. While strides have been made to do away with this theory, it is still pervasive.

Every year, many countries celebrate Pride Month and host a myriad of events to mark the day and the month. The intention is noble; we do, after all, want to create societies that embrace many different communities, promote inclusivity, and celebrate diversity.

However, the proof really lies in what happens in practice. Even the most progressive Constitutions like ours can only be useful if corresponding legislation gives effect to them. We may not be able to change beliefs and attitudes, but we can certainly protect those who are marginalised through harmful societal practices.

Daily, we hear of horrific hate crimes happening where the LGBTQIA+ community is targeted. “Corrective rape”, mutilation and murder are not rare in South Africa. There are many actors in the activist space doing incredibly important work to raise awareness, promote tolerance and even provide safe spaces for people at risk. Their work must be commended and supported. However, until this work is complemented by those who have been elected to public office, progress will be slow.

Members of Parliament, as elected public representatives and legislators in South Africa, need to come to the party in various ways to help rid the country of the scourge of hate crimes. There are various ways in which this can be done. Making amendments to existing legislation, rectifying legislative lacunae and giving effect to provisions of the Constitution are some of the interventions which we should expect from the people who took an oath to serve.

This is why I have published my intention to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that would amend the existing Children’s Act of 2005 so that it can explicitly outlaw what is known as “coercive conversion therapy” for children (ie, persons under the age of 18).

It is absolutely crucial to trace back the roots of “coercive conversion therapy” to understand its potentially devastating effects on children in particular. Historically, homosexuality was considered a pathological condition that needed to be “cured”. While strides have been made to do away with this theory, it is still pervasive. In 1990, the World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses upon adopting a new version of its international classification of diseases. The American Psychology Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its Official Manual of Mental Disorders Diagnosis and Statistics (DSM) in 1973; and supported the same position in several court cases, notably in the cases of Jegley & Another vs. Picado and Shields & Others vs. Madigan.

However, the stigma persists and various practices of coercive conversion still take place. This is borne purely from societal and internalised homophobia and transphobia, and its prevalence is encouraged by negative attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ persons. It is a practice that aims to alter, “heal” or “repair” an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a practice that is not supported by science and is a violation of internationally-entrenched prohibitions against torture and inhuman treatment.

Through coercive conversion practices, people in the LGBTQIA+ community are at times subjected to corrective violence and harmful drugs (including antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics and hormone injections). In some cases, electroconvulsive procedures and practices of exorcism are used. Sometimes ritual cleansing is used – a practice that can involve violence, starvation, forced exposure to nudity, forced isolation and confinement. There is nothing therapeutic about these practices. These practices are simply inhumane and should be outlawed. 

Globally, Germany, Brazil, Malta and Taiwan are leading the way in having outlawed coercive conversion therapy. And we should follow their lead.

By explicitly and legally banning these brutal and coercive practices, we can make sure that in South Africa no healthcare professional, organisation or individual is allowed to do this to children.

Coercive conversion practices have proven psychological and mental effects that are harmful and destructive to the people it is inflicted on, and professional organisations, such as the South African Society of Psychiatrists, have labelled them as unscientific and ineffective in altering one’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

Some interest groups and political parties have sought to distort the purpose of prohibiting coercive conversion practices in the Children’s Act as an infringement on religious rights or even interfering with the rights of parents to raise their children according to chosen values. The passing of this bill will not inhibit any parent or guardian from having conversations with children under their care about sexuality or gender identity.

This bill would ensure that South Africa does no harm to minors by way of unscientific interventions that are destructive. It would also affirm the provisions and the very spirit of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which prohibits any form of discrimination or harm against people on the basis of sexual orientation.

As the legislative process unfolds, I will be lobbying the public, various interest groups and other political parties to vote in favour of this amendment to the Children’s Act. A drafting process in Parliament would need to take place where terms like “coercion” and “consent” are defined clearly. If the law does not allow you to physically and emotionally abuse children, it should prohibit anyone from coercing them to undertake harmful, psychologically damaging and archaic “therapy” interventions. This is the legislative gap that this bill will address.

It is difficult to change attitudes and cultural norms through legislation, but our Constitution affords us the ability – as citizens and public representatives – to take legislative action to protect marginalised groups and the most vulnerable in our society, namely children. We simply cannot keep delivering the same platitudes condemning hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ persons without any real change in our legal framework.

The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996, the Civil Unions Act of 2006 and, most recently, the Civil Unions Amendment Act of 2020 all forged the way in changing attitudes before the shifts in core beliefs came. That is why we must always be guided by principle and constitutionalism instead of personal fears that expose the worst in humanity. DM


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