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RIGHTS-UGANDA: Fugitives in Their Own Country

KAMPALA, Jan 29 2010 (IPS) - Every morning Pepe Julian Onziema wakes up not knowing if she will live to see another rising sun. Onziema is transgender and she lives in fear for her life because of a national campaign against gay people.

Pepe Onziema lives in fear for her life. Her only 'crime' is that she is transgender. Credit: Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

Pepe Onziema lives in fear for her life. Her only 'crime' is that she is transgender. Credit: Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

Although she has done nothing wrong, Onziema lives like a fugitive – always on the lookout to avoid trouble.

Her days are spent in fear and as darkness descends she securely locks the doors to her flat in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb where she lives with her partner.

Onziema is a well-known activist and the national programmes coordinator of Sexual Minorities Uganda, an advocacy network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations. She has appeared on television several times defending the rights of LGBTs. But it has not made her life any easier.

Just like other LGBTs in her country Onziema has been arrested; spat on; attacked; insulted and even stoned by neighbours.

She cannot comfortably sit in a restaurant for fear of being recognised and evicted, or even use public transport.

Her name has been listed in tabloids as one of the members of Uganda’s ‘immoral society’. And when a crime is committed against her, she cannot report it to the police because sex between two people of the same gender is against the law in Uganda and she will be discriminated against.

“It’s a crazy world we are living in as gays. We are really suffering,” Onziema says.

In recent months a campaign against LGBT people has intensified the discrimination.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill's section on 'aggravated homosexuality'

(a) Person against whom the offence is committed is below the age of 18 years;

(b) Offender is a person living with HIV;

(c) Offender is a parent or guardian of the person against whom the offence is committed;

(d) Offender is a person in authority over the person against whom the offence is committed;

(e) Victim of the offence is a person with disability;

(f) Offender is a serial offender; or

(g) Offender applies, administers or cause to be used by any man or woman any drug, matter or thing with intent to stupefy or overpower him or her so as to thereby enable any person to have unlawful carnal connection with any person of the same sex.

A person who commits the offence of aggravated homosexuality shall be liable on conviction to suffer death.

Where a person is charged with the offence under this section, that person shall undergo a medical examination to ascertain his or her HIV status.

Source: Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009

The campaign is being headed by a section of the legislature and religious leaders. Last year Uganda’s leading Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ramathan Shaban Mubajje, called for LGBTs to be rounded up and exiled on an island on Lake Victoria until they died.

Pentecostal pastor Martin Sempa, from the Makerere Community Church, leads a coalition of Christian churches against homosexuality. He also regularly organises anti-LGBT rallies and campaigns on radio and TV talk shows. In 2008 a local tabloid The Red Pepper listed alleged LGBTs in Uganda in a bid to ‘shame them’ and The Observer newspaper published an article on ‘How to spot a gay Ugandan’.

Consequently, suspected LGBTs have been evicted by landlords and some have had their homes set ablaze. Lesbians have been raped by men who say they are teaching them ‘how to be a woman’. But when these crimes are committed, many do not report it. Like Onziema they are scared of the police who arrest and detain them for being gay.

“When the day breaks, I pray. I pray that there is no gay person in trouble today. I do not even get adequate sleep. You can’t switch your phone off because someone might need help. You could save a life.”


As an activist, Onziema has been arrested by police at least four times. After one of the arrests, police could not easily identify her gender so they gave her a forced physical examination.

“And some point, because they were having this ridiculous argument about my sex, two female officers came in to my room, while the third, a male one stood at the window. They asked me to undress. Because I was hesitant, one police woman decided to force off my pants and touched my private parts…”

It was a traumatising experience that happened after Onziema was detained for protesting at an international HIV/AIDS implementer’s meeting in Kampala in June 2008.

LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists were peacefully protesting statements made by the director general of Uganda’s AIDS Commission, Dr Kihumuro Apuuli, that no funds would be directed toward HIV programs targeting men who have sex with men.

“Gays are one of the drivers of HIV in Uganda, but because of meagre resources, we cannot direct our programmes at them at this time,” he reportedly said. And it is a stance the government has stuck to.

Double stigma

While men who have sex with men are identified as a population at a high risk of contracting and transmitting HV, there are no deliberate programmes to include them in the country’s national HIV/AIDS response.

“I worked as an HIV peer counsellor before and I was actually thrown out (of) the place because I was helping couples who were of the same sex,” Onziema says.

Many LGBTs are also afraid of going for HIV testing or even counselling due to the double stigma of being sexual minorities and HIV-positive.

“We have had people who do know their status and those who have actually gone to access Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) under the pretext that they are straight…We need systems and a policy where gay people can honestly reveal their history so that you (doctors) are able to administer treatment to them accordingly,” Onziema said.

The Bill

Sex between two people of the same gender is a crime punishable by life imprisonment through provisions in the Penal Code and the 1995 Constitution.

In April 2009 minister of ethics and integrity, Nsaba Buturo, declared the current laws insufficient to fight homosexuality, which he described as ‘immoral and un-African’.

Shortly after, an Anti-Homosexual Bill (2009) which ‘aims at strengthening the nations capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family’ – was tabled in parliament as a private members Bill by MP David Bahati.

“We want it (the Bill) to become law in that if someone is a homosexual, or confesses to being gay, then he/she is a criminal,” Buturo said.

Under the proposed law, it becomes a crime just to be an LGBT. The Bill also criminalises same sex marriages and same-sex sexual acts.

But most controversial of all is the death sentence imposed for the crime of ‘aggravated homosexuality’. This is where an HIV-positive LGBT person has sex with a person who is either under the age of 18 years or has disabilities. And if someone is caught repeatedly having non-heterosexual sex, they will be classified as a serial offender and also face the death sentence.

The proposed Bill also provides for forced HIV testing for those accused of aggravated homosexuality. But the Bill does not merely extend to LGBTs. It includes a sentence for all members of the public – including parents, landlords and health workers – who fail to report LGBTs.

“Those who have really read through it realise that it affects almost everybody. It is a Bill that the public has not been sensitised about and we as gays have also not been given the opportunity to sensitise the public about it,” said Onziema.

Buturo has accused international human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for supporting non-heterosexual sex by funding LGBT rights advocacy groups in the country. The Bill now declares criminal any non-governmental organisation that supports LGBT activity with a provision to revoke their licences.

It is a Bill that has received strong opposition from not only from the LGBT community and rights organisations in Uganda but from political leaders and rights organisations across the world.

Donor pressure

Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has always openly criticised homosexuality. He even strongly supported the proposed Bill during his speeches. However, at a recent meeting with his ruling National Resistance Movement party members at State House on Jan. 13, Museveni indicated he would not back a Bill that imposes a death sentence for the crime of ‘aggravated homosexuality’.

“This is a foreign policy issue and we have to discuss it in a manner that does not compromise our principles, but also takes care of our foreign interests,” Museveni told members, asking them ‘to go slow’ on the Bill. He did not elaborate further.

However, analysts say the Ugandan president could have bowed to international pressure after he revealed that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had all urged him to reconsider the Bill. U.S. President Barack Obama also expressed concern, local media reported.

Early this year, British Labour MP Harry Cohen introduced a motion in parliament asking the British government to demand that Uganda scrap criminal penalties for homosexuality.

Human rights groups have also called on western nations to withhold aid from Uganda if the draconian Bill is passed. Half of the country’s national budget comes from international aid.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has also threatened to expel Uganda from the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) arrangement if the Bill is passed. AGOA is an economic arrangement that provides duty-free treatment to imports originating from beneficiary African countries.

However, Sempa who claims homosexuality is a foreign import, says Uganda must not succumb to donor pressure.

“We must be strong… Any country (like Uganda) that puts sodomy on the top of its foreign policy is making a big mistake…And if the selling of our cotton to America means that we receive sodomy in exchange, then that is a trade we cannot do.”

Uganda’s speaker of parliament, Edward Ssekandi. said consideration of the Bill would proceed despite the President’s ‘go slow’ appeal.

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