The Ugandan Parliament speaker’s promise to present his country with the “Christmas present” of a revived anti-homosexuality bill has led, in turn to a revived interest in the human rights landscape of that country, three years after the bill with its death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality” was first announced.
The most recent attention, with ads, letters, email campaigns, twitter blasts and petitions — from within and without the country — condemning the bill has reportedly had some effect: Ugandan parliamentarians have said they have dropped the death penalty provision. But the impact of the bill, which would stand as an obstacle to both access to health care and to the ability of health care providers to even offer services, continue to make preventing the bill’s passage a matter of life and death, as well as of rights and dignity. The record of Uganda’s HIV fight, once hailed as model and a success story, now showing the most alarming reverses in Africa, stands as testament to what happens to health responses in a setting where science, human rights, and the realities of the impact of discriminatory laws are ignored. In all of those, of course, Uganda is far from alone, raising the question of what the world’s greatest united humanitarian effort, the work to treat and prevent the spread of HIV, could achieve when those issues are addressed.
According to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law working paper: The Case of Gay Bisexual and Other Men who Have Sex with Men, 41 of 54 Commonwealth states retain British colonialist-introduced anti-sodomy laws criminalizing homosexual sex on their books today. Whether or not Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law is passed, the country already has, and presumably will retain, its colonial era anti-sodomy law. At least 10 of the original 15 PEPFAR countries have such laws. One of the results, a succession of researchers have found over the years, is literally incredible data on the populations most affected by HIV in some of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. In Zambia, a country with a colonial-era anti-sodomy law with prison time still on the books, a mid-term review of the country’s National AIDS Strategy estimated that men who have sex with men made up less than 1 percent of the country’s roughly million people living with HIV. The same document conceded the need to collect data on the epidemic among men who have sex with men. The obstacle to collecting that data, however, remains on the books. The working paper cited above counts 51 countries with insufficient — that is to say not credibly reviewed or relying on an inadequate sampling — or no data on their epidemics among men who have sex with men.
Uganda is not alone either, in the cruelty of its proposed legislation. Nigeria’s “Jail the Gays bill” also would deal out prison terms for those “helping” gay people — including, if not especially, one can assume, by providing essential health services and information — and to foreign tourists. Laws banning “homosexual propaganda” hindering the dissemination of life-saving health messages are spreading throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia “as rapidly as the epidemic itself,” according to ECOM, the Eurasian Coalition on Male Health. The recently released The Night is Another Country from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance documents violence with impunity against transgender women in Latin America, a region where transgender women are among the hardest hit by HIV.
Frequently, when donor representatives discuss these conditions, they cite a reticence to impose their values on their partners. That has not prevented well-funded efforts to urge abstinence and monogamy messages, as well as campaigns to stop traditional practices with unevaluated impacts on HIV transmission. Ugandan officials too, made much, last time around of their resentment of outside meddling into their cultural morals and mores. But, as has been discussed, again recently on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, Uganda’s original anti-homosexuality bill followed fast on the heels of a visit from American evangelical pastors who stood in support of harshly punitive anti-gay laws, and who spent time with parliament members discussing the legislation. And in the meantime, India threw out its inherited colonial-era anti-sodomy law several years ago, asserting its own human rights mores as well as the need to protect the health of its citizens. In Zambia, as in other countries, the HIV-positive activist population has taken up the cause of gay rights, saying they do so in part because their own lives depend on addressing the epidemic there with serious effort. At least as many of the statements against the latest legislation in Uganda have come from civil society groups there, as ones outside the country.
For all of that, this International Human Rights Day represents the potential for a stride forward, because of the raised voices of those in Uganda, and other African countries, Latin America, and Eurasia, as well as because of the recently unveiled U.S. Blueprint to create an AIDS-free generation. As the United States prepares to carry out that blueprint, the support it provides to those most neglected so far and the information it draws on from those with the most at stake will reflect its commitment to sustainable partnerships.