During 2023, Uganda’s President Yoweri Musevini signed a law which was so harsh on the LGBT community that it sent shock waves round the world. The World Bank halted loans to the country, as well as the US imposing visa restrictions on hundreds of key officials. While homosexuality had been illegal in Uganda since 1902, the new draconian law ensured that those convicted now face lifelong imprisonment. Furthermore, in ‘aggravated cases’ (those in which one of the parties involved is under 18 or a long term STI is transmitted such as HIV), offenders even face the death penalty. In signing this law, Uganda became one of seven UN member states to use capital punishment as a response to homosexuality, and the only Christian majority country to do so. So how exactly has this law affected LGBT Ugandans already, and is there an end in sight?
One of the first concerns raised about the devastating impacts of this law was the potential for a rise in cases of HIV and other STIs due to the increase in their stigmatisation. Soon after the law came into place, three of the leaders of the world’s most significant campaign groups (Pepfar, UNaids and the Global Fund) released a joint statement which referred to Uganda’s progress on its HIV response as now in, ‘grave jeopardy’. They stated that, even shortly afterwards, the discrimination associated with the passage of these acts, ‘led to a reduced access to prevention as well as treatment services.’ One executive director of an NGO aiming to help Ugandans receive treatment for HIV reported that when the bill was introduced, 15% of his patients stopped receiving their antiretroviral therapy for fear of being identified and targeted. Furthermore, he added that there had been a 60% decrease in LGBT walk-ins, suggesting far fewer patients are being screened for HIV, and so many will not realise they have the infection. In another NGO, antiretroviral drugs were seen to be piling up unused, meaning that even when Uganda has the capacity to treat patients from this deadly illness, the stigma from the law is preventing it – clearly, this legislation is endangering the lives of LGBT Ugandans in more ways than one.
Another result of the legislation is an increase in international migration; many Ugandans are fleeing to countries such as Kenya, where they believe will provide them with safer environments in which to express their sexuality. However, this has become an issue since neighbouring countries are not always LGBT friendly either, which has caused a rise in tensions between those Ugandans fleeing persecution and traditional communities in other countries. This has been the case in Kenya – in parts of Nairobi, some landlords are evicting queer tenants and confrontations with employers have increased dramatically. Furthermore, last year there was an increase in homophobia from with Parliament with one lawmaker tabling a motion to ban discussion on same sex marriage, with another seeking life sentences for any person found to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Clearly, for LGBT Ugandans, it would not be as simple as just being able to move abroad to escape this abhorrent law, even if this didn’t also come with losing their sense of home and the communities they have grown up in.
In December, the legislation faced the most significant challenge it has done so far, with civil society groups meeting court judges in attempt to overturn it. Rights groups argue that the law is challenging dignity and equality of Ugandans, whereas the government maintains that it is aiming to protect family values. We can only wait and see whether the judges decide to protect LGBT Ugandans, or whether their struggle will continue at the extreme level it does at present.