KAMPALA, Uganda — The repercussions of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), which was signed into law in February 2014, are now beginning to show themselves clearly.
Homosexuality was already outlawed in Uganda, but the AHA punishes first-time offenders caught committing homosexual acts with 14 years of incarceration. Same-sex marriage or acts of “aggravated homosexuality,” such as sex with a minor or while HIV-positive, warrants life imprisonment. The AHA also outlaws the support or promotion of homosexuality and requires citizens to report suspicions of homosexual activity. The bill originally suggested the death sentence for certain homosexual acts, but this clause was removed after intense international criticism.
Since the law passed, endemic homophobia has risen. Sexual Minorities Uganda, an LGBT rights group, recorded “a more than tenfold increase in attacks on gay and lesbian people in the first two months after the law passed.” There is fear that Ugandan citizens will take matters into their own hands. Rampant homophobia may lead to mob “justice” on suspected homosexuals. Religious zeal may also contribute to mob action, as in Uganda, the church presence is widespread, deep-rooted and highly discriminatory towards the LGBT community.
A major repercussion for Uganda is a weakening of currency. Since passing the anti-gay law, U.S. dollars now cost nearly six percent more. The U.S. and other Western countries including Norway, Denmark and Sweden have also announced that they will cancel aid programs and joint military exercises with Uganda. Foreign aid constitutes four percent of Uganda’s gross national income, an amount equal to more than one third of government revenues. The U.S. will not, however, cut funding for HIV/AIDS and food programs. The aid penalties are intended to affect those responsible for implementing the AHA and officials guilty of corruption. The U.S. also intends to punish Uganda by imposing more stringent visa restrictions on Ugandans involved in human rights abuses towards homosexuals.
Another issue Ugandans are facing is lack of recent tourism. Travel companies, safari trips, hiking and gorilla sightseeing have all been adversely affected.
It is not yet clear whether the U.S. withdrawal of aid—and the weakening of Ugandan currency—will have the desired effect of reinstating the protection of human rights for homosexuals. Much of the country’s revenue stems from the harvesting of natural resources such as metals and oil. This wealth is likely to be concentrated among a small number of people who won’t be considerably affected by Western aid withdrawal. This puts Western countries in a tough position: they seek to respond to human rights abuses, yet their punishments may disproportionately hurt innocent Ugandans and leave the higher-ups responsible for the AHA with even more power.
Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo announced that aid cuts will not lead to modifications in the status of the AHA: “Uganda is a sovereign country and can never bow to anybody or be blackmailed by anybody on a decision it took in its interests, even if it involves threats to cut off all financial assistance,” he said.
Although currently a controversial topic in Uganda, discrimination against the LGBT community poses a global health hazard. Anti-gay laws like Uganda’s promote violence and limit medical treatment for homosexuals. There have been recent reports of brutality and public humiliation linked to LGBT issues in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria. But other than overt crime, anti-gay laws also deter homosexuals from seeking treatment if they have contracted HIV or are suffering from other medical conditions. The AHA “makes failure to report known or suspected homosexual behavior a crime,” which interferes with the efforts of health professionals to work with LGBT citizens, lest they be punished. Thus, the institutionalized discrimination allowed by anti-gay laws can contribute to the spread of diseases, foster violence and paranoia and cause unequal health treatment.
– Mari LeGagnoux