Uganda's parliament will, before Christmas, pass a highly controversial bill which seeks more stringent punishments for people engaging in homosexual acts and those perceived to be "promoting" homosexuality, says the speaker of the house.
Rebecca Kadaga told hundreds of petitioners in Kampala on 9 November that she would ensure the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which has been before parliament since 2009, would be passed before the end of 2012.
"Parliament has been energized because you have given us the instructions. We have the bill; we have the order paper and the numbers [to pass it]," said Kadaga while receiving a joint petition from religious leaders, civil society, and anti-gay activists who asked parliament to pass the bill as a "Christmas gift" to the country.
Kadaga won plaudits at home following an October meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Canada in which she took on Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird, who had criticized Uganda's treatment of gays: Kadaga said Canada should not seek to force Uganda to embrace homosexuality and urged Canada to respect Uganda's "sovereign rights, cultural values and societal norms".
Homosexual acts, or "carnal knowledge against the order of nature", are already illegal under the country's penal code, punishable by life imprisonment. The bill seeks to widen the scope of crimes around homosexuality and to impose harsher punishments on offenders.
The original version of the bill, tabled by ruling party MP David Bahati, proposed the death sentence for the crime of "aggravated homosexuality", which covers, among other things, a homosexual act committed by an HIV-positive person and homosexual acts with minors; "serial offenders" would also face the death penalty.
The bill has continued to have strong support both in and out of parliament, despite President Yoweri Museveni distancing himself from it in 2010 following international pressure.
|What value would enacting this law add to our existing body of law or fight against HIV? I think we have enough laws on defilement, rape and indecent assault|
Following widespread international criticism, Bahati re-tabled the bill in May 2011, downgrading the punishment for aggravated homosexuality to life imprisonment and removing the crime of "attempted homosexuality" and a clause requiring people in authority to report homosexual activities they are aware of within 24 hours or face jail.
"We call for urgent passing of the bill. We shall not sell our national birth right in exchange for a few dollars to soften on homosexuality," the organizations said in the petition. "Ugandans are ready to pay the price of maintaining their values, cultural and societal norms whatever the cost might be."
Ugandan society is largely homophobic, and political and religious leaders have often claimed that homosexuality is an "un-African" Western import.
"We as government have no objection and fully support it [the bill]," Simon Lokodo, Uganda's state minister for ethics and integrity, told IRIN/PlusNews. "The children of Uganda will be saved from this dangerous practice of same sexual marriages that Western countries want to impose on us. This bill respects the positive culture of Ugandans."
Locked out of HIV services
Activists have decried the bill, saying it is a violation of human rights that would make men who have sex with men (MSM) even less willing to access health services. MSM are considered by the Uganda AIDS Commission to be a "most at-risk population", but because homosexual acts are illegal, there are no policies or services targeting HIV interventions towards them.
The Crane Survey, a 2008-2009 study of high-risk groups in Uganda, reported that HIV prevalence among MSM respondents was 13.7 percent, close to twice the national prevalence.
|Gays say they are regularly harassed by the authorities|
"If this bill is passed into law, it will gravely affect HIV intervention because it will drive very many sexual minorities underground. There is nothing harder in society than curbing health issues of people who are marginalized and underground," Pepe Julian Onziema, programme director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), told IRIN/PlusNews.
Gays in Uganda say they face discrimination and are stigmatized by health workers when they seek care in the public and private health system. A clinic - opened this year in Kampala to deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) health issues - has faced severe opposition from Lokodo and other government officials.
"We have encouraged dialogue and still encourage it with various stakeholders, particularly the speaker, to give the bill a fair hearing, but also citing that the most important discussion we should be having right now is that of the dire state of our country, especially the theft of funds for critical development," Onziema said.
Ireland and the UK recently suspended aid to Uganda over massive graft in the Office of the Prime Minister.
Experts have challenged the constitutionality of the bill.
"I don't support the enactment of this law because I think it’s prima facie unconstitutional. The bill in its current form infringes on the right to privacy and freedom of expression and choice," Stephen Oola, a transitional justice and governance analyst at Makerere University's Refugee Law Project, told IRIN/PlusNews.
"What value would enacting this law add to our existing body of law or fight against HIV? I think we have enough laws on defilement, rape and indecent assault. You can't enact a law to criminalize two consenting adults falling in love or making love either way and make it punishable with a death penalty."
"The anti-Homosexuality Bill is not a priority for Ugandans, many of whom will not live to celebrate this Christmas, if nothing is done now to alleviate their poverty and restore their livelihood," he added. "The real moral outrage for this country is our leaders trying to divert our attention from the real crisis, and Kadaga is playing into their hands."
"There are fundamental concerns that need to be addressed... The bill offends our constitutional obligation in regards to the bill of rights and international human rights," Nicholas Opiyo, a constitutional and human rights lawyer in Kampala, told IRIN/PlusNews. "The bill should be withdrawn. If we can't withdraw completely, it's important to purge the bill of its draconian clauses, which is about 90 percent. The aspects of compulsory disclosure by the doctors, teachers and parents are completely dangerous. It will deny them [minority groups] access to treatment and other social services."