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Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill threatens HIV/AIDS fight

Uganda | A health worker visits a man with AIDS. A new anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda's parliament will make it more difficult to fight HIV/AIDS / Sean Sprague - Panos pictures

HIV campaigners fear a homophobic bill currently being discussed by the Uganda parliament will lead to further stigmatisation of the gay community in Uganda and could stop HIV positive people from accessing treatment and hamper the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Being gay and HIV positive in Uganda has never been easy. But life is set to get a lot harder for gay people seeking treatment for HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

Pereza (not his real name) knows better than most the difficulties gay people have in Uganda when it comes to accessing HIV treatment. When the 34-year-old, who works for a private business, first suspected that he was HIV positive he was too scared to go and be tested. “When I finally went to be tested, the counsellor asked me whether I had a partner,” he told Panos. “I had to deceive her. If I had risked bringing a fellow man then I don’t think I would have been enrolled for treatment.”

“It takes courage for any gay person to seek medical treatment in this country,” Pereza continued. “Most of us are dying because we cannot access treatment, care and support. You would be ridiculed if you dared to come out to tell a nurse or doctor that you are gay. Everyone would look at you as if you were something dirty.”

The difficulties facing men and women like Pereza have recently come to light because of the so-called Anti Homosexuality Bill, a private member’s bill currently being discussed by the Ugandan cabinet and which has created a growing climate of fear among the gay community in Uganda.

Already illegal

Homosexual acts are already illegal in this East African country, carrying a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. The bill, which was proposed towards the end of 2009 by David Bahati, an MP for the ruling National Resistance Movement, seeks to up this to life imprisonment. It also proposes the death sentence for a new offence of “aggravated homosexuality” – namely when one of the participants is under 16, disabled, HIV positive or a “serial offender”.

An estimated 170,000 people are enrolled in government ARV treatment in Uganda with a further 100,000 expected to enrol by the middle of this year.

Dr. Stephen Watiti, the chairperson of the National Forum of People Living with HIV/AIDS Network, said about 80 percent of Uganda’s ARV treatment is funded by foreign donors and any cuts in aid would directly affect HIV positive people. “Removing [any of] that money would be a death sentence to those receiving the treatment,” he said.

Watiti said treatment interruptions caused by shortages of the drug could lead to a new drug resistant HIV epidemic. He added that criminalising HIV transmission in both homosexuals and heterosexuals would cause stigma that would fuel the disease, leading to more deaths.

Laban, a university student in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, is scared.

“Some of my classmates know that I’m gay,” the 23-year-old said. “With this law they are expected to report me to the police. If the bill is passed I will leave my studies and go into hiding.”

He is referring to the fact that if the bill is passed anyone who fails to report within 24 hours the identities of any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered person could be sent to prison for up to three years.

Prominent members of society “outed”

Some of the local newspapers have already “outed” prominent members of society they believe to be gay. Campaigners fear the bill could lead to McCarthy era witch hunts, sending the gay community underground and preventing effective anti HIV teaching.

Laban told Panos the gay community faces a lot of stigma. “You are expected to behave in a certain way which is approved by the culture and morals,” he said. “So I have decided to live alone to avoid being ridiculed.”

Frank Mugisha, head of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), is one of few gay Ugandans to actively campaign for their rights. As a result he has become a potential target and cannot go out without bodyguards. He told Panos the gay community has been living in fear since Bahati tabled his bill. “If the bill passes into law we will be ostracised by almost everyone in society. Already we can’t go to overcrowded places because for fear of being attacked by a mob.”

An “odious” bill

The bill has caused outcry, both internationally and in Uganda.

Barack Obama called the bill “odious”, while several other leaders, including UK prime minister Gordon Brown, have put pressure on Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni to withdraw the bill.

One of those most strongly opposed to the bill is the Swedish government, which threatened to cut the $50 million in aid it gives Uganda each year if the bill is passed.

There have also been calls from US human rights campaigners for America to cut some of its considerable aid. The US is the biggest donor to Uganda’s HIV treatment programmes under The US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). From 2004 to the end of 2009 Uganda had received a total of almost US$1.5 billion. The money has helped provide more than 200,000 people living with HIV/AIDS with life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

As a result of this pressure, the bill now looks likely to be watered down. Museveni has himself changed tack. Having previously condemned homosexuals, he has distancing himself from the bill, declaring parliament’s handling of it “must take into account our foreign policy interests”. Meanwhile, David Bahati announced in January that he would be willing to amend the bill – though he did not say how.

Strong support for the bill

However, the voices supporting the bill – and denouncing foreign countries for intervening in Uganda’s affairs – remain very strong.

Bahati has the support of Uganda’s powerful lobby of Evangelical and Anglican bishops, many of whom have been outspoken in favour of the bill and who have the power to sway public opinion.

Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi of the Church of Uganda, the country’s main Anglican Church which claims to represent 30 per cent of all Ugandans, publically confirmed his support for the bill in February at the General Synod, the national assembly of the Church of England, in London.

In a formal statement Orombi said the Church of Uganda “particularly appreciate[s] the objectives of the Bill which seek to… prohibit and penalize homosexual behaviour and related practices in Uganda as they constitute a threat to the traditional family.” He also remarked that: “Homosexual practice has no place in God’s design of creation, the continuation of the human race through procreation or His plan of redemption” and that “lesbianism, bestiality and other sexual perversions” should also be prohibited.

“State-legislated genocide”

Some members of the Christian community have spoken out against the bill and Ugandan society is divided. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a prominent member of Uganda’s Anglican Church, described the bill as “state-legislated genocide against a specific community”.

Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop living in Uganda, said: “The bill will push Uganda towards being a police state. There is lack of understanding about homosexuality – it is not [about] recruitment [of gay people], it is [about] orientation.”

Yet it is the feeling on the streets of Kampala and across Uganda that is likely to determine what happens, as MPs will court popular opinion.

Young preachers, encouraged by the churches, preach against homosexuality on Kampala’s busy street corners.

One of these preachers is Betty Wanyaka. She told Panos: “I’m a mother and I believe in God, so I’m against homosexuality. The Word says men have to marry woman not man and man.”

But not everyone agrees. Calvin Kanyali, a young salesman from Kampala, said there were more pressing issues than attacking the gay community.

“People are dying of cancer, the hospitals have no medicine but they want to spend the little money there is chasing after homosexuals. This shouldn’t be the biggest priority for our MPs,” he said.

HIV/AIDS’ rates could rise on wave of homophobia

Gerald Sentongo, the Administrator of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), told Panos that if the bill was passed it would further complicate efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS among homosexuals in Uganda.

Around 5.4 per cent of Uganda’s population is HIV positive, according to official government statistics. Campaigners fear this figure could rise with the rising tide of homophobia.

“No one will come out to seek treatment knowing that the nurse, counsellor or doctor is required by law to report a homosexual and have him arrested by police,” Mr Sentongo said.

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