Uganda: Anti-Homosexuality Act Starts to Bite As NGOs Operate On Edge and Inject Drugs

Before the enactment of AHA, there was hardly a day when the offices of Uganda Harm Reduction Network (UHRN) were not flooded with people. Located in Makindye, UHRN is a popular hub at supporting and addressing issues of people who use and inject drugs (PWUIDs), especially youth.

Last week, The Observer tour of the place found it deserted. Twaibu Wamala, the UHRN executive director, told us that the enactment of the AHA has had a significant impact on the operations of UHRN and several other NGOs.

It is easy to understand why; with the combination of the “promotion” provision and the “duty to report” provision, the law effectively turns everyone on Ugandan soil into de facto spies for the state.

This means that individuals are not only required to report persons engaged in same-sex acts but also individuals who support or encourage homosexuality, including friends, and family members, as well as organizations and establishments that normalize or support homosexuality, such as hotels and landlords renting rooms to same-sex couples.

SENSE OF FEAR

So, according to Wamala, the working environment at UHRN has become tense, and fear has permeated both the staff and the community members they serve.

“The law itself has created a sense of fear and insecurity among the LGBTQ who use drugs population, which has had a direct impact on UHRN’s ability to provide services. Since UHRN’s work cuts across all categories of people, including LGBTQ who use drugs, the threat posed by the law has hindered their ability to effectively carry out their mission,” he said.

Regarding specific challenges his organization has encountered since the law was enacted, Wamala said he is wary of the constant surveillance of UHRN’s office premises by unknown individuals.

“As our work extends to all categories of people, including LGBTQ who use drugs, the organization has become a vulnerable target, further complicating their efforts,” he said.

The AHA poses a direct threat to UHRN as it imposes a hefty penalty of Shs 1 billion if found guilty of promoting homosexuality. Wamala adds that since the enactment of the act, there have been numerous incidents of harassment, discrimination, and violence against LGBTQ who use drugs in Uganda.

Interestingly, the recently-deceased Supreme court justice Stella Arach- Amoko, in her decision in the case of Mukasa and Another v Attorney-General, ruled that the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on various grounds, including sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and political opinion.

So, it remains to be seen how the law has impacted the availability and accessibility of essential services for LGBTQ people. To this, Wamala said the law has had a severe impact on the availability and accessibility of essential services for LGBTQ.

“Fear of exposure and the potential legal consequences have created a climate of fear and mistrust, preventing LGBTQ who use drugs from seeking counseling or psychosocial support. This denial of support further isolates LGBTQ who use drugs, leaving them without the essential services they need to navigate their challenges and promote their well-being,” he said.

So, while a statement from the ministry of Health was issued on June 5, 2023, directing public hospitals to provide services to all people without discrimination, it is uncertain how effectively this directive will be implemented.

As a result, Wamala said both local and international partners have consistently reminded government that the provisions of the AHA contradict the country’s obligations under various international human rights instruments.

These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Rights of Women in Africa, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These instruments explicitly protect the rights to equality and non-discrimination.

So, in light of the challenges imposed by the law, it means that not only is UHRN required to report individuals engaged in same-sex acts, but they are also obligated to report allies, friends, and family members who support or encourage homosexuality, organizations that advocate for LGBTQ who use drugs rights, and even hotels and landlords who provide accommodations to same-sex couples.

TOO HARSH PENALTIES

The Act includes severe penalties for entities found guilty of promoting homosexuality. Legal entities involved in activities deemed supportive of same-sex relations can face fines of up to one billion shillings.

This exorbitant financial penalty underscores the authorities’ firm stance against any actions that are perceived as promoting or assisting homosexuality.

The combination of these provisions creates a climate of fear and suspicion within Ugandan society. It effectively encourages individuals to monitor and report on the private lives and relationships of LGBTQ who use drugs, as well as anyone associated with them.

The Act’s broad scope and stringent penalties amplify the gravity with which the authorities regard any actions deemed supportive of same-sex relations. This coercive and punitive environment severely impacts the lives and rights of LGBTQ individuals and their allies in Uganda.

It engenders a climate of self-censorship and secrecy, making it increasingly challenging for LGBTQ who use drugs to express their identities, seek support, or live authentically without fear of being reported or prosecuted under the Act.

Already, efforts are underway to challenge or repeal the AHA and in this effort, UHRN is actively participating in advocacy efforts aimed at challenging the AHA.

“While UHRN primarily focuses on providing comprehensive health services, support, and equal opportunities to LGBTQ who use drugs, we recognize the crucial role of legal teams in driving the petition against the AHA,” he said.

SOLIDARITY WITH LEGAL TEAMS

“UHRN stands in solidarity with these legal teams, supporting their efforts to challenge or repeal the discriminatory law through legal channels. The organization provides assistance by sharing relevant information, offering expertise on the impact of the AHA on the health and well-being of LGBTQ who use drugs, and raising awareness about the need for legal reform.

By joining forces with legal teams and other advocacy organizations, UHRN contributes to the collective effort to challenge the AHA and advocate for a more inclusive and equitable society in Uganda.

The organization recognizes the importance of addressing legal barriers and promoting human rights to ensure that LGBTQ who use drugs can live free from discrimination and enjoy equal access to healthcare, support, and opportunities.

UHRN’s participation in these advocacy efforts demonstrates its commitment to advancing the rights and well-being of LGBTQ who use drugs in Uganda and actively working towards positive change in the legal landscape.

Lastly, under the AHA, property owners face risk of being jailed if their premises are used for any sexual minorities rights’ activities. So, given that UHRN is renting its offices, it remains to be seen how the landlord views its activities.

To this, Wamala remains unfazed, and noted that by continuing to offer services to people in their diversity, regardless of their background or identity, UHRN is demonstrating a strong dedication to inclusive and equitable care.

“By awaiting a court pronouncement on the matter, UHRN shows a commitment to upholding the principles of justice and the rule of law. This approach ensures that the organization operates within the legal framework while advocating for the rights and well- being of all individuals,” he said.

“UHRN’s work plays a crucial role in addressing the health needs of diverse communities, including those who may face marginalization and discrimination. By providing life-saving harm reduction services, UHRN contributes to promoting better health outcomes and reducing the harm associated with substance use and other risk factors. Our dedication to serving all individuals in their diversity aligns with the principles of inclusivity, equality, and human rights. It is through organizations like UHRN that progress can be made in creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for all individuals in Uganda,” Wamala added.

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