UGANDA: State homophobia putting gays at HIV risk - activists
Demonstrators protest homosexuality in Kampala, Uganda, 17 August 2007.
Nairobi, 24 August 2007 (IRIN) - The Ugandan government's hostility towards the gay community leaves them out of health programmes, putting them at greater risk of HIV, the New York-based lobby group, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned this week.
"In a climate where silence about sexuality is enforced by state action, the health of all Ugandans is at risk amid the HIV/AIDS pandemic," HRW said in a letter to President Yoweri Museveni
on 23 August. "We urge you to ensure the full integration of issues of sexual orientation and gender identity into nationwide HIV prevention and care programmes."
Homosexual acts, or "carnal knowledge against the order of nature", carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in Ugandan law. President Museveni's government supports this law, and he has repeatedly claimed that homosexuality "does not exist" in Uganda.
The HRW letter arrived after a week in which a gay rights group, Sexual Minorities Groups in Uganda (SMUG), agitated for their rights in the capital, Kampala, demanding the decriminalisation of homosexuality, while religious groups held a rally denouncing same-sex relationships.
SMUG held a press conference with the theme, "Let us live in peace", on 16 August, where it called for the same rights for gays as all Ugandan citizens enjoy. "To successfully stop HIV/AIDS, we must treat every person with the dignity and attention they deserve," said SMUG spokesman Laurence Misedah. Many press conference participants wore masks for fear of prosecution.
At the anti-gay rally on 17 August, government officials, cultural leaders and religious leaders from the Christian and Muslim faiths joined hands to condemn homosexuality.
"The rally had a double message: we have noticed that homosexual agents and activists are infiltrating Uganda, and this was a protest against them and a message to the world that we do not want homosexuals and homosexuality in Uganda," Pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the rally's organisers, told IRIN/PlusNews. "Secondly, it was in support of our government and their laws against the practice of homosexuality." Including gays in HIV programmes
"Homosexuals should absolutely not be included in Uganda's HIV/AIDS framework. It is a crime, and when you are trying to stamp out a crime you don't include it in your programmes," Ssempa said. "For instance, the solution to stopping HIV transmission through rape is not to provide the rapists with condoms, but to stop rape itself."
The Ugandan government makes no provision for men who have sex with men, or women who have sex with women, in its HIV programmes. "This is because homosexuality and lesbianism are criminal offences under Ugandan law," James Kigozi, spokesman for the Uganda AIDS Commission, told IRIN/PlusNews. "But we don't discriminate when they go to health centres. We do not ask their orientation, nor do we refuse them services."
However, staff at medical centres stigmatised gay people once they revealed their orientation, Dr Paul Ssemugoma, a local doctor, told the SMUG press conference.
According to Beatrice Were, an HIV-positive Ugandan AIDS activist, "Their exclusion from services is not direct, but due to the denial by culture, and public condemnation by politicians and religious leaders, the moral drive against them is reinforced."
She told IRIN/PlusNews that marginalisation was allowing HIV to spread widely in the gay community. "They seem to be mainly youth and mainly poor, as they have been rejected by their families and kicked out of school, so they lack skills to seek employment competitively, and we know how well HIV thrives amidst poverty."
Were said many people in the gay community were bisexual and having sex with the general population, so "their problem is a problem for all society."
A recent survey by a Kenya-based research organisation, The Steadman Group, found that more than 90 percent of Ugandans were against homosexuality, while only four percent were in favour of legalising it. Activists estimate that there are about 500,000 practising homosexuals in Uganda.