Ugandan MP David Bahati’s proposed law, the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill”, was drafted in October 2009 and is currently working its way through Ugandan Parliament. The contents of the bill are severe, and go to extraordinary lengths to banish homosexuality in the central African country. The bill states that gay men and women convicted of having homosexual sex would be sentenced, at minimum, to life imprisonment. People who test positive for HIV and homosexuals who have homosexual sex more than once, with a minor, or with someone disabled, may find themselves faced with execution. In addition, there is a penalty of three years’ imprisonment for those who fail to report a suspected homosexual within 24 hours. The effects of these provisions will serve to deepen the criminalisation of homosexuality in the minds of Ugandan citizens, even where the conduct is consensual and innocuous.
The bill can be conceived of as a response to the palpable tensions in Uganda that surround the issue. These sentiments surged in the late 1990s when gay rights groups began to emerge in Africa. Placing these proposals in a global context serves to highlight the draconian nature of the bill. Worldwide acceptance of homosexuality is steadily increasing; Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and parts of the United States of America, recognise homosexual marriage. A further twenty countries acknowledge—and perform—civil partnerships. Yet, on the African continent, South Africa is the only country that allows gay marriage. However, it should be acknowledged that the legalisation of gay marriage does not warrant the inference that gay men and women can live peacefully. Some South African groups have rejected homosexuality as “un-African” and one of the ways that this attitude is taken up is by gangs carrying out so-called “corrective” rapes on lesbians.
Whilst the bill arouses a provocative moral debate in which one can become easily entrenched, it is vital to step back from the controversy in order to focus clearly on what the consequences might well be for Ugandan citizens if such legislation is implemented.
Seen from a global health perspective, the consequences on the escalation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic could be dire. The bill forbids the “promotion of homosexuality”, which has the effect of banning Non-Governmental Organisations and sexual health providers who work with the shadowed LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community in HIV and AIDS prevention. Doctors fear they will be prosecuted for “aiding and abetting” homosexuality by employing established prevention strategies (for example sex education, use of condoms and distribution of sexually transmitted infection self-treatment kits) and this could reverse the country’s previous successes, which have been positive and significant. Furthermore, legislation which imposes the death penalty on “active homosexuals” who have HIV will only consign those individuals into paralysing predicaments: the options are either execution for those who are found to be HIV positive, or abject suffering for those who are undiagnosed and unable to access the antiretroviral drugs that are desperately needed.
Among the many international public bodies that form a chorus of opposition, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has denounced the bill as breaching international human rights standards: “to criminalise people on the basis of colour or gender is now unthinkable in most countries. The same should apply to an individual’s sexual orientation”. Other observers have said that Uganda has failed to acknowledge the diplomatic and economic repercussions of this legislation, in light of the US and Sweden’s threats to cut off aid should the bill become law. In response to these widespread criticisms, Okello Oryem, Ugandan Foreign Affairs Minister, has curtly stated that Uganda will not bow to external pressure, nor will they respond to the threats of withdrawing aid.
The bill is currently in the stages of being debated by Parliament and could undergo amendments before a vote, for which a date has not yet been set. Angelo Izama, an analyst with the Kampala-based think-tank Fanaka Kwa Wote, said a watered-down version of the bill may be adopted as sources seem to suggest that the Cabinet is divided on the death penalty clause. As it stands, a committee chaired by a local government minister has been formed, which will deliberate on this highly contested piece of legislation before reaching a final position.
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