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Parliament of Uganda passes new anti-gay bill

Uganda’s parliament has passed a new bill aimed at restricting Ugandans’ sexual activity.

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The Parliament of Uganda in session in 2019.

By Joto la Jiwe

Passage of the Sexual Offenses Bill 2019 yesterday (May 3) was greeted with excitement by Uganda’s anti-gay movement and disappointment from human rights advocates.

The bill largely repeats the already-existing but generally unenforced anti-homosexuality provisions of Uganda’s Penal Code, dating back to 1930 and amended in 2000, which criminalized “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”.

Supporters of the new bill say that it clarifies the specific meaning of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” by providing a prison sentence for:

“(i) The penetration of another person’s anus with [a] sexual organ or with any object;
(ii) … a sexual act between persons of the same gender.”

The new bill is clear than, except for medical purposes, any anal penetration by body parts or objects will now be a crime, whether among heterosexuals or homosexuals. Any sexual contact between two people of the same gender, including two women, will now be criminalized.

The exact language of the bill, including specifics about the length of prison sentences for same-general sexual activity, has not yet been announced. Those specifics will be revealed when the exact text is published later this week.

Criticism of the newly passed bill came from many sources:

Members of the Ugandan LGBTI community. On the left: Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda.

Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, expressed dismay at the passage of the bill for “making same-sex acts criminal, as if the Penal Code wasn’t enough.”

The Ugandan LGBTQI news service Kuchu Times stated, “It subtly reinforces some of the clauses that were passed in the now nullified Anti Homosexuality Act of 2014.”

The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) stated that the bill creates avenues for further infringement of the rights of LGBTQI persons. In particular, HRAPF criticized:

  • The bill’s criminalization of consensual same-gender sexual activity. HRAPF stated that these sections of the new bill “violate the constitutional provisions on: the inherent nature of rights (article 20); right to equality and freedom from discrimination (article 21); right to a fair hearing (article 28); and the protection of minorities (article 36).” In addition, HRAPF stated, “HIV prevalence among the key populations is very high. Criminalizing people who engage in same sex relationships will hinder them from accessing the most needed scientifically proven HIV prevention tools such as condoms, treatment as prevention, screening and treatment of STIs which increases one’ vulnerability to HIV infections.”
  • Logo of HRAPF, the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum

    The section on aggravated rape, which is punishable by death. The bill allows a rape to be considered an “aggravated rape” if the defendant is HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS. HRAPF stated: “Singling out HIV and AIDS as a factor for aggravated penalty for rape, discriminates against people living with HIV. The provision places the burden on people living with HIV which do not fall to those living with other infectious illnesses. Using HIV and AIDS as a factor for aggravated offence treats people with HIV as vectors of disease, rather than as people with an interest in their own health and rights. This provision undermines the efforts to eliminate the stigma that surrounds people living with HIV and AIDS. … [This] law falls most heavily on those who ‘took the trouble’ to get tested and may even by engaging in safe sex options. This may discourage those who do not know their status from having an HIV test.”

  • The prohibition of prostitution, punishable by up to seven years in prison. HRAPF stated: “The criminalization of sex work harms sex workers and denies them access to the rights contained in our Constitution. Article 24 provides for the right to health, respect for human dignity and protection from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. In Uganda, HIV prevalence among the sex workers is higher than the national prevalence rate. Sex work is fundamentally a labour issue. It is a form of service work that should enjoy the same protections that any other type of service work entails. Criminalizing sex work will drive sex workers under cover and fuels stigma. Stigma will hinder sex workers from accessing the health services including HIV prevention tools such as PrEP, Condoms, Treatment as prevention among others.”

The new bill will go to President Yoweri Museveni for his approval before it becomes law.

This week’s action came more than seven years after the Ugandan parliament approved the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill. As originally proposed, that legislation was called the “Kill the Gays Bill” because it would have imposed the death penalty for some same-sex sexual activity. Before the bill was passed, that maximum penalty was reduced to life imprisonment.

In 2014, a few months after it was enacted, the Anti-Homosexuality Law was overturned by the Constitutional Court because Parliament had not established a clear quorum before approving the bill.

Joto La Jiwe, the author of this article, is a Ugandan correspondent for the African Human Rights Media Network and a member of the Uganda Health and Science Press Association. He writes under a pseudonym. Contact him at [email protected].