Uganda: Uncertain Future for LGBT Rights in Uganda As Controversial Bill Is Passed

Gay pride flags (file photo).

The Sexual Offences Bill seeks to address a wide range of issues from rape to prostitution. But gay rights activists fear the new law amounts to a backdoor reintroduction of the discredited 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The Ugandan Parliament on Monday passed the Sexual Offences Bill, which contains a clause to criminalize same-sex relationships. The bill prescribes a 5-year-jail term for anyone guilty of same-sex acts, and awaits the signature of President Yoweri Museveni.

For many, the bill sounds like a repeat of a similar law passed in the Ugandan parliament in 2013, which, however, was annulled by the country's Supreme Court based on technicalities.

The new bill explained

The focus of the new bill is to primarily clamp down on sexual violence in general, increasing punishments for sexual offenders while also boosting the protection of victims during sexual offence trials. The overarching objective of the new piece of legislation is to provide for a broader application of the law while repealing some provisions of the Penal Code Act.

According to Jacob Oboth Oboth, chairperson of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee, the bill first and foremost aims to introduce articles pertaining to "post-penetration" consent, which relates to cases in which a person initially engaging in consensual sexual intercourse may change his or her mind and withdraw consent.

Oboth Oboth said that the new bill "protects victims of sexual violence both within and out of marriages," and Pamela Nasiyo Kamugo, chairperson of Uganda's Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA), described the bill as a positive move because "it gives women the right to withdraw consent and discontinue sex upon the realisation that the man may not be protected."

Lawmaker finds homosexuality 'contrary to the order of nature'

The types of sexual offence cited in the bill, however, include a rather long list of criminalised acts including rape, aggravated rape, sexual assault, indecent communication, sexual harassment, detention with sexual intent, sexual acts with a person in custody, sexual exploitation, defilement, aggravated defilement, procuring defilement, sexual offences by children, households permitting defilement, supply of sexual content and material to a child, child prostitution, child sex tourism, sexual act in presence of a child, marriage involving children and so-called "unnatural offences."

It is indeed the latter element that has gays and lesbians in Uganda worried now, while plunging the country into a fresh debate on the issue. While presenting the bill before parliament, Oboth Oboth was categorical in his classification of homosexuality as an "unnatural act" that ought to be outlawed:

"A person who performs a sexual act with another person contrary to the order of nature, performs a sexual act with a person of the same gender, a person who attempts to commit an unnatural offence, commits a felony is liable on conviction for imprisonment for 5 years," Oboth Oboth argued before parliament -- a view that is apparently echoed by many Ugandans.

Isaac Lubulwa, an administrative assistant, told DW that the introduction of such laws, in his view, was long overdue: "Banning homosexuals should have happened in Uganda like a century ago. This is Africa. Therefore, homosexuality is immoral, it is not religious, and it is not natural. Men should marry women and women should be married to men," Lubulwa said.

Elementary school teacher Rose Bukirwa expressed her support for the bill but fell short of indicating whether the element prohibiting same-sex relationships was her main motivation "The bill will protect our moral fibre. It will protect our young children, and our young generation. It is long overdue," Bukirwa argued.

LGBT rights activitists outraged

Human rights activists in Uganda have meanwhile declared that they intend to fight the bill as they see it as another blow on their quest for achieving equal treatment. Frank Mugisha from "Sexual Minorities Uganda," a local LGBT organization, expressed that the law "is extreme, uncalled-for and very regrettable.

"We definitely are going to challenge this in the courts of law. This should or will be amended or removed. This bill, if signed into law by the president, will continue to harass the LGBT community. It will increase incidents of arbitrary arrest, blackmail and extortion. Hate crimes and violence towards LGBT community will increase because of this law, he said."

His view is not just based on an uneasy feeling but is rather informed by his experience with the introduction of the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which handed out the death penalty to anyone convicted of engaging in homosexuality. Although gay rights defenders challenged the 2013 bill at the Supreme Court successfully on legal technicalities, many LGBT individuals in Uganda now fear that this new bill has simply brought back elements of the originally discredited bill.

Churches also endorse bill

According to some members of the Pentecostal community, the new bill also targets pastors who fondle and inappropriately touch their followers under the guise of praying for them. Despite this, many clergymen in Uganda have also expressed support for the piece of legislation, highlighting that it primarily addresses homosexuality.

Pastor Wilson Sewanyana welcomed the bill, saying "I don't think this law was meant to act against the church or pastors. This law was meant to fight against homosexuality. But in church, when we do pastoral duties, we don't touch people's privates during prayers. We only lay hands on their heads and they are healed. This bill will help us to fight the devil."

While the new law also bans prostitution and places a life imprisonment on defilement, the focus in the public debate has clearly shifted to issues relating to LGBT rights, with many thinking that the draft law will be signed into legislation.

Given that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly described homosexuals as "disgusting" in the past, many in the country believe that he will sign the law sooner rather than later. This would make it one of Museveri's first acts of government during his new term, which many observers have labeled the result of an illegitimate power-grab amid mounting claims of rigged elections and serious human rights violations against opposition supporters.

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