Uganda’s LGBT+ community suffered yet another setback in May when lawmakers approved a bill to further outlaw same-sex relations. At Pride Uganda, we see this as a dangerous development that will only serve to fuel homophobic sentiment and increase violence against our community.
The Sexual Offences Bill was approved by parliament on 3rd May and now awaits a final signature by President Museveni. On the face of it, the bill includes some positive steps towards addressing sexual violence, including protecting sexual assault survivors’ rights and criminalising sexual harassment by people in positions of authority. We fully condone those sections of the bill and have been long-standing advocates for these protections.
But it is also a fundamentally discriminatory and regressive piece of legislation. We are deeply troubled by provisions in the bill that punish any “sexual acts between persons of the same gender”, as well as anal sex between people of any gender with up to 10 years in prison. The bill in its entirety would effectively criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, including sex workers.
This bill is truly a wasted opportunity. Ugandan lawmakers should be focusing on ending endemic sexual violence – a scourge that affects hundreds of thousands of women (and a smaller proportion of men) in the country each year. Instead, they have undermined this effort by embedding within the bill abusive provisions that criminalize the sex lives of consenting adults. This undermines the LGBTQ+ community, but also anyone who has or will face sexual violence.
There is a long history in Uganda of discriminatory legislation against the LGBT+ community and this bill is no different. It is an attempt to smuggle back many of the provisions contained in the anti-homosexuality act of 2013, a bill that had originally included a death penalty clause for individuals found guilty of same-sex relations. It had been shelved on procedural grounds and after intense political pressure from the international community, but the threat is now close to being a reality again.
As was the case back then, we fear that this bill will lead to a flare-up in hostility towards the community. LGBTQ+ people face an increase in arbitrary arrests, police abuse and extortion, loss of employment and homelessness. Many people in our community have fled the country because of this violence. There have been regular reports of raids on LGBTQ+ people, including one in 2019 that saw 16 arrested on suspicion of gay sex. Another in 2020 saw authorities storm a homeless shelter, arresting and torturing 20 queer youth under the guise of COVID-related charges.
Violence flares when the community is targeted for political reasons. During the presidential elections earlier this year, politicians exploited homophobic sentiment to win votes, leading to a rapid escalation in violence, arrests and disappearances. At one of his rallies, President Museveni claimed that one of his rivals, Bobi Wine, was “an agent of foreign interests” promoting homosexuality. Everything suggests this bill will lead to a repeat in this cycle of violence.
At Pride Uganda, we have experienced the effects of homophobia on our community. We work to support activists who are on the ground protecting LGBT+ lives, educating communities and advocating for change. We regularly meet people who have been ostracised from their families and are unable to study, find work or access basic services. They are routinely targeted by police, government crackdowns and a corrupt judiciary.
We reach out to the community to empower them and remind them that as an individual, as a human being, they have a right to live. In practical terms, this means we give LGBT+ people mentoring and access to legal counsel. Those who need economic support are also given business advice and helped on their way to set up their own small businesses – a need that has grown dramatically during the pandemic.
LGBT+ people have almost no representation in government and it has always been challenging to influence legislation aimed at the community. In moments like these, we rely on our friends and supporters around the world to help put pressure on our elected officials. International criticism played an essential role in preventing the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2013, and there is no reason this cannot happen again. If President Museveni were to approve the Sexual Offences Bill it would be one of his first acts of government during his new term. We hope you will join us and support us to stop this from becoming a reality.
You can find out more and donate if you’re able to here: www.Pride-Uganda.org