13 May 2014

Uganda: HIV Organisations Feel the Bite of Anti-Homosexuality Legislation

Barely three months after Uganda's draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law it has started to bite, with civil society organisations under investigation for "promoting homosexuality".

Those under investigation are mainly organisations involved in research, advocacy and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), including those that provide testing, counseling and treatment for HIV.

"Some of these organisations have been promoting ideas that are not compatible with our laws," said Simon Lokodo, Uganda's state minister for ethics and integrity.

"They have been hiding and pretending to be providing humanitarian assistance and research, yet they are promoting homosexuality. We shall not tolerate and entertain homosexuality in Uganda. I am waiting for the outcome of the ongoing investigations. We shall just suspend and close the operations of these organisations. We can't allow them to continue promoting bad morals."

Arrest and detention

The investigations are already having a negative impact on public health services. On 3 April, the police arrested and detained an official of the Makerere University Walter Reed Project for allegedly recruiting young males, aged between 18-25, and training them in homosexual acts. The project provides prevention, care and treatment for populations most at risk of HIV, such as the gay community, sex workers and drug users, and is funded by the United States of America's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPfAR).

Fred Enaga, Uganda's police spokesperson, says the trainees were shown videos of men engaging in homosexual activity, and given literature describing safe sexual practice between males, as well as condoms and lubricant.

"We are not against non-governmental organisations provided they work within the mandated guidelines and the laws of Uganda. When they verge away from their mandate and start doing things outside the law, then they become in conflict with the law and we come in," said Enaga

The project, which is engaged in efforts to improve public health and save lives, issued a statement on 4 April announcing the temporary suspension of its activities to ensure the safety of staff.

Anti-Homosexuality Act

According to the new legislation, enacted into law on 24 February by President Yoweri Museveni, those found guilty of homosexual acts can be jailed for up to 14 years. This sentence increases to life in "aggravated" cases, such as those committed by a person living with HIV, or those involving minors, the disabled and serious offenders.

Since the law came into force activists have continued to criticise the government saying its actions will make matters worse and push sexual minority groups away from essential healthcare services, particularly prevention and treatment of HIV.

"Certainly one of our key concerns with the Anti-Homosexuality Act is that it threatens civil society working on a range of issues, including human rights and public health," said Maria Burnett, senior researcher, Human Rights Watch.

"Civil society should have space to conduct research, provide services and take part in policy debates without fear of government reprisals or criminal prosecution. Threatening the space for civil society and criminalising the work of civil society affects everyone."

Activists speak out

Arthur Larok, country director for Action Aid, Uganda, said: "It's better for us to die as martyrs advocating for human rights and transparency than keep quiet. The investigations are aimed at instilling fear and de-legitimizing the work of civil society organisations on human rights, democracy and health delivery."

Milly Katana, a long term HIV activist, said: "Those government agents investigating NGOs should be careful to draw a distinction between promoting homosexuality and promoting access to health for the people of Uganda irrespective of their sexual identity.

"The constitution of the republic of Uganda, which is the supreme law of the land, makes it clear that all people of Uganda have a right to access health care and the government has a responsibility to provide health care. It does not categorise people according to sexual orientation.

"What the government should do instead is support the NGOs because they are helping the government fulfill its constitutional responsibility."

Tough times ahead

Civil society organisations (CSO) are headed for more tough times ahead as the Non-Government Organization Registration (Amendment) Bill 2013 is currently before cabinet. The ministry of internal affairs drafted the bill to specifically bar CSOs and foreign NGOs from engaging in the country's politics and promoting homosexuality.

The bill aims to expand government powers to monitor NGOs applying to carry out research and will not allow them to advocate for political reform, or monitor local politics and elections.

James Baba, state minister for internal affairs, said: "The bill seeks to streamline all the activities of NGOs. It will help us know the source of their funding and activities for which it's being used. Some of these organisations have been getting foreign funding for ill motives like homosexuality."

Hindering the HIV response

According 2008/09 Crane Survey of high-risk groups in Uganda, HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men was 13.7 percent. UNAIDS states: "Globally gay men are around 13 times more likely to become infected with HIV than the general population, emphasising the urgent need to ensure safe access to HIV prevention and treatment services for all people everywhere."

Human rights activists believe Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act is entrenching oppression, contracting the space for NGO operations and further eroding the already limited access of sexual minority groups to prevention, care and HIV treatment.

Asia Russell of HIV advocacy organisation Health GAP said: "Efforts to further restrict the essential work of civil society or to harass and intimidate civil society are extremely concerning. Civil society's vital work, whether in demanding accountability for life-saving health service delivery, or fighting corruption, or supporting human rights, should be encouraged and expanded by government, not curtailed."

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