Challenges to human rights in Uganda: discrimination against LGBT people in law and in practice

9 May 2014


Right now, you can’t go to places that are crowded, because the mob can attack us or even burn us. We can’t walk alone. We are ostracized by relatives. But if this bill passes, it will become impossible for me to live here at all. And that part hurts the most.” (Frank Mugisha, in an interview with Saeed Ahmed for CNN)


The Uganda Anti Homosexuality Act, first introduced in 2009, calls for a 14-year jail term for a first conviction and imprisonment for life for the offence of “aggravated homosexuality”, including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive. The bill also criminalises what it calls the “promotion of homosexuality”, where activists encourage others to come out, and proposes prison sentences for anyone who counsels or reaches out to homosexuals. This would entangle rights groups and others who provide services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and others delivering vital services in the healthcare sector, such as HIV support.


Many Western countries, such as the USA, Norway and Holland responded to the Bill by threatening to withdraw aid to Uganda, which relies on millions of dollars from the international community. The bill was shelved, but support grew, and on December 20, 2013, it was passed by the Ugandan Parliament. Those driving the legislation, such as David Bahati, an MP in the Ugandan Parliament, claim that this tough legislation is necessary, as the influence of ‘Western lifestyles’ risks destroying family units in Uganda.


The President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who had veto on whether the bill should be signed into law or not, changed his opinion on the law several times after it had been passed late last year. In January he announced that he would not sign the bill, describing homosexuals as “sick” people who need help, rather than punishment. However, on February 24th this year he signed the bill into law. He reasoned his action by explaining that scientists have determined that there is no gene for homosexuality and that it is a choice to embrace abnormal behavior. He said “It was learned and could be unlearned”.


Museveni signed the bill despite some domestic and substantial international opposition and declared that he would not let the West impose and influence its values on Uganda. “We Africans never seek to impose our view on others. If only they could let us alone” he said, talking about the Western pressure not to sign the bill. He said that the bill is necessary in Uganda, because “arrogant and careless Western groups” had tried to “recruit” Ugandan children into homosexuality. US President Obama warned that the law would affect the US-Ugandan relationship, and Senator John Kerry recently spoke out against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, stating, “I join many voices in the United States, Uganda and around the world in condemning Uganda’s draft legislation imposing new and harsher penalties against homosexuality. Discrimination in any form is wrong, and the United States must say so unequivocally.”In addition, The World Bank, withdrew $90 million in funding for health services funding after Uganda’s law passed. However, Museveni was not deterred. He said: “If the West doesn’t want to work with us because of homosexuals, then we have enough space here to live by ourselves and do business with other people.”


Since the bill was signed into law, the Dutch government have announced that it is suspending aid to Uganda’s government, but that they kill keep supporting nongovernmental groups. Norway and Denmark have done similarly- Norway has withdrawn at least $8 million but will increase its support to human rights and democracy defenders, and Denmark is restructuring aid programs worth $8.46 million, that were meant for the Ugandan government but are now going to private actors and civic groups.


There is also plenty of domestic opposition to the bill, and to the notion that tolerance of homosexuality is a western imposition. For example, Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan man, argues that “Uganda has always been a conservative society, but it never used to be a cruel environment for gay people”. He suggests that the current trend of virulent homophobia and criminalisation is partly driven by the American evangelical movement, which is actively homophobic and anti homosexuality, and he blames pastor Scott Lively for introducing this in Uganda. Pastor Lively visited Uganda in 2002 and openly shared his homophobic views, this fuelled a public outrage, which was new in Uganda, which according to some is the main root of the bill. He concluded by saying I want my fellow Ugandans to understand that homosexuality is not a western import and our friends in the developed world to recognise that the current trend of homophobia is.”


The Impact of the Bill

Since the bill was passed into law, a number of incidences of aggression have already been observed.

A US military backed HIV research centre was invaded on Thursday April 3rd in Uganda. One worker was detained by Ugandan police, who claim that the organisation was promoting homosexuality, which is in violation of the new law.

While this arrest is worrying and disturbing, the incident highlights a broader problem in countries that have anti-gay laws. Particularly in countries where HIV rates are high, discriminatory laws can foster a public health crisis.

According to UNAIDS studies, homosexuals who face discrimination including abuse, incarceration and prosecution, are less likely to seek HIV testing, prevention and treatment services. Globally, gay men are around 13 times more likely to become infected with HIV than the general population, partly due to the discrimination they face, which makes it harder for them to access health care.

The discrimination therefore undermines the urgent need to ensure safe access to HIV prevention and treatment services for all people everywhere. This is especially a big problem in Uganda, where 7.2% of the population is infected with HIV. Dennis Altman, a gay activist and professor said, “Clearly the state sponsored persecution of homosexuals — or indeed anyone perceived to be homosexual — makes any outreach to these groups more difficult, and this will inevitably impede the provision of education around HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Support for sexual rights is not only morally right, it is also a basic foundation for good public health”.


Photo credit:  Photo credit: The image was tweeted by leading Ugandan LGBT activist Jacqueline Kasha. Photo credit: Photo credit: Reuters/James Akena Photo credit: EPA

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