How Uganda’s Anti-Gay Law Hurts Women

Posted on May 30, 2014, by Nafi Chinery

In 2008 a colleague and l were in Uganda’s capital Kampala to attend an awareness session on domestic violence in minority communities. The organizers, a lesbian group, were partly funded by our organization, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), which is a pan-African grant making foundation based in my home country, Ghana.

After a few unsuccessful efforts to meet them, we eventually saw the association’s members very briefly. Since tension was already rising over gay issues in Uganda, they were fearful of harassment by the local community. The atmosphere in their office was tense and the women kept checking the main gate to ensure it was properly locked and spoke in low tones throughout the meeting. One of them told us about how she frequently had to change homes because, as a lesbian, she had been harassed by people in her neighbourhood. She told us that these restrictions had badly affected her work and income.

Two years later, in 2010, a women’s rights organization that AWDF supports was blocked from organizing a leadership training workshop for sex workers in Kampala. They had sought to provide a safe space for sex workers to share information and gain skills to advance their rights, improve their safety and secure their livelihoods. But the then-Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity considered the meeting morally wrong and ordered the hotel where the workshop was being held to cancel their booking.

These are just two examples of how women’s rights groups dealing with sexual minority issues, and organizations working with them, have been unable to operate freely and openly in Uganda in recent years — and now the situation has been made even worse by recent draconian Ugandan laws that criminalize homosexuality. These laws are the culmination of a concerted effort by local politicians, supported by U.S. Christian fundamentalists, to stir up moral panic about sexuality and gender, promoting a populist, discriminatory agenda that is having a severe impact not just on gay people but on anyone who wants to advance knowledge of sexual health and reproductive rights among Ugandans.

Nafi Chinery

Uganda’s anti-gay law criminalizes the aiding, abetting, counselling, or promotion of homosexuality. The strikingly vague language and wide interpretation of these offences by the authorities means that any group that openly discusses sexuality may be targeted and arrested. The result is that any public discussion of HIV/AIDS must skip over crucial risk factors, such as homosexuality and sex work.

This will force organizations like mine, which support women’s rights activities irrespective of sexual orientation, to exclude groups that work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. We have already had to cancel a scheduled training session in Kampala for 20 women’s organizations on health and reproductive rights, since we cannot guarantee our safety, or those of our grantees, because we know how discussions on women’s health and reproductive rights requires a discussion of sexuality and minority rights.

What makes this move by the Ugandan government even more surprising is that Uganda has been praised for bringing down its high HIV/AIDS rate by being willing to talk openly about sexual issues. Just 20 years ago and under the same president, there was firm political support for tackling the spread of infection by ensuring people were knowledgeable about human sexuality. This included broad consultations with groups like sex workers to tackle stigma and develop ways of reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and to provide support services to those affected. But now it seems political priorities have changed, and this door is being shut. The anti-gay movement has been zealously promoted in Uganda by Westerners and internal anti-gay groups over the last six years and some Ugandans believe President Yoweri Museveni has seized on the issue as a vote winner.

The result is a panic that may reverse gains made in reducing HIV/AIDs in Uganda and will only deepen stigmatization of minority groups. Nationwide HIV prevalence fell from 18 percent in the early 1990s to 6.4 percent in 2004. In 2011 it rose to 7.2 percent. Grassroots and non-governmental organizations which were once deeply involved in discussions around sexual behavior are now afraid to engage. Organizations providing access to anti-retroviral drugs and health education to all are closing up because they are being accused of promoting gay activities. When obstacles such as these laws are imposed on those trying to provide health care, they only serve to worsen the marginalization, self-respect, and dignity of LGBTI people and put the risk and well-being of women at risk. Further, women will be driven from involvement in community development.
We need to have broader conversations on this anti-gay law and its implications for the spread of HIV/AIDs, women’s health, and the livelihoods of marginalized groups in Africa. What women and minority groups need among other things are security, skills, information and equal access to quality health services, and more importantly, a voice to be able to influence actions likely to threaten their very survival. The anti-gay campaign in Uganda abuses the human rights of all of us.

Nafi Chinery works for the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) and is a 2014 Aspen New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Connect with her on Twitter (@nafichinery).