23 December 2013

Uganda: New Law a Setback for Uganda's HIV Response

Photo: Kaytee Riek
Uganda Anti-Gay Bill a set back to the country's HIV/AIDS fight (file photo).

Kampala — The draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill passed by Uganda's parliament on 20 December would deliver a major blow to the response to HIV/AIDS if it was enacted by President Yoweri Museveni, activists have warned.

Those found guilty of homosexual acts can be jailed for up to 14 years under the new law, a sentence that increases to life in "aggravated" cases, such as those committed by an HIV positive person, or those involving minors, the disabled and serious offenders.

Civil society activists fear that high-risk groups such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers - whose HIV prevalence is 13.7 and 33 percent respectively - will see their already limited access to prevention and treatment further eroded.

Amnesty International called the law "a grave assault on human rights [which] makes a mockery of the Ugandan constitution.

"President Museveni should avoid the trap of scapegoating a vulnerable minority in the interests of short-term political gain," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"He should recognize that this repugnant bill is of no benefit to Ugandans - that it only serves to jeopardize basic rights - and reject it."

"This harmful and blatantly unconstitutional bill will deal a devastating blow to evidence-based efforts to end the AIDS epidemic in Uganda." - Asia Russell

The United States government has also called for the bill not to be enacted.

Here is a selection of reactions from those working on the frontline of the response to HIV/AIDS:

Pepe Julian Onziema, programme director, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a local rights group

"It's with deep disappointment that I receive the news of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill passing in our Parliament."

"If the bill is assented to, the Act would spell a major setback for Uganda's gains against HIV/AIDS as it will compromise doctor-patient confidentiality, which will push affected LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) persons further underground for fear of prosecution."

Asia Russell, Director of International Policy, Health GAP

"This harmful and blatantly unconstitutional bill will deal a devastating blow to evidence-based efforts to end the AIDS epidemic in Uganda - a country that is almost unique among aast and southern African countries in that it has rising rates of new HIV infections. Why? Because existing criminalization provisions have meant prevention and treatment services aren't reaching populations like MSM, who have much higher HIV prevalence."

"Under this new bill, providing those services would now be illegal - we will see new infections continue to rise as populations get excluded further and further from life-saving treatment, prevention, information and support."

Milly Katana, veteran activist and board members of the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria

"Totally disheartening! It is one of those moments where as a country we move one step forward in realizing civil liberties and public health common sense, [then] we take 10 steps back."

"The little achievements of the Ministry of Health starting to think of making services available to people who are most at risk of contracting HIV are put in total jeopardy. I hope the president, who has announced himself as a champion for HIV prevention by encouraging Ugandans to test for HIV and knowing their status, will see the non-wisdom in this Act and not assent to it."

Alice Kayongo, Regional Policy and Advocacy Manager, AIDS Healthcare Foundation - Uganda Cares

"The effects of this (bill) will be felt in almost all sectors but most especially in the health sector and particularly for HIV/AIDS where over 80 percent of the AIDS response is funded externally."

"Even with amendments, the proposed law will have an impact on the quality of healthcare and health education to be provided to gay people living with HIV for the fact that treating someone or providing them with HIV related information will be seen as a promotion act, yielding to imprisonment. While there have been indications of forward movement in this country's AIDS response, we are at risk of losing so much of what we have gained in the recent past."

"Evidently, with such developments in the political and legal environments, Uganda is miles away from attaining [the UN-backed target of] zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination. It will not be a surprise if Uganda's prevalence rate stagnates around 7.3 percent in 2017. However, we still have some hope, His Excellency President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni should reject the passing of this bill into law and everything else will fall into place."

Flavia Kyomukama, director of the Global Coalition on Women and HIV/AIDS in Uganda

"At a time when the country is trying to implement the national HIV prevention strategy that has underscored the sex workers and MSM as key in the reduction of the epidemic, the legislature thinks it's a waste of time to have these people access services."

"A mother, a teacher, a health worker, an employer is by obligation expected to report any LGBT within 72 hours of notice and confirmation that someone is LGBT."

"How do I report my son? As a teacher how do I report my student who comes to me in confidence? And as a health aide how do I abuse the confidence of the patient? All of us are going to be imprisoned."

"If the proponents of the bill claim homosexuality is a mental disorder, is it logical to [give] life imprisonment? The [logical] approach would be counseling and treatment."

And here are some reactions from champions of the new legislation:

Simon Lokodo, Uganda's state minister for ethics and integrity

"This bill is going to cater for the lacuna which has been existing in the current law and legal frameworks in Uganda concerning this unnatural act. Having passed this bill, a lot has been done to protect our children and innocent victims who would be lured into these western cultures and behaviours, which are totally unacceptable to us."

"The law is going to condemn any recruitment, promotion and financing of the activities related to these malpractices."

"On the threats from donors and development to withdraw their financial assistance over this bill, we don't care and are not bothered at all. We prefer to lose that money than our culture and people."

"We have an obligation as a sovereign state to protect our people against this unnatural act.

Michael Lulume Bayiga, shadow health minister

"I am happy and excited this bill was passed. We are waiting for the president to assent to it in order for it to become a law. I am particularly happy with the provision that bans the promotion of this cult (homosexuality). This provision will ensure this act will doesn't take root in our country."

"No health worker asks patients whenever they seek treatment from a health facility about their sexual orientation, unless he/her chooses to do so. For all the years I practiced medicine, I have never known any sexual orientation of my patients. There is no discrimination in the health service provision."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]

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