Gay activists’ arrest shows HIV response gaps

Date: January 1, 1970
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The arrest of three Ugandan activists protesting the exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities from HIV/AIDS prevention efforts sparked hot debate among the 1700 global participants of the HIV/AIDS Implementers Meeting held in Kampala the first week of June. The protest, and subsequent arrest, points out how responses to health issues such as HIV/ AIDS often ignore LGBT and other marginalised communities, and the close links between human rights and the pandemic.

Taking an advantage of the high profile meeting, Pepe Juliana Onzema, a freelance journalist, Usaam Mukwaaya, and Valantini Katende entered the venue with posters expressing their anger at discrimination facing the community. ‘’Gay Ugandans also need HIV prevention,’’ read one of the posters, while another read “Since 1983 up to 2008 zero shillings (Ugandan currency) to HIV prevention for gay Ugandans.”

The LGBT community faces discrimination in many African countries, hindering their access to many services, including HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Given the generally accepted estimate that about 10% of any population is gay, this has far-reaching consequences for prevention efforts.

Co-sponsored by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Bank, the Global Fund, United nations International Children’s Emergency (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (GNP+), the meeting was organised facilitate partnerships to scale up HIV/AIDS programmes.

In the early 1990s, Uganda became one of the first countries to record a miraculous decline in the HIV/AIDS prevalence, and organisations and governments subsequently looked to the country as a model of success. President Yoweri Museveni cites the involvement of all people in the country as key.

While donor agencies and governments meet in different forums to debate on pressing issues related to HIV/AIDS, there continues to be a marked absence of gays – the blame takers in many circles for the spread of the disease. At the Kampala HIV/AIDS meeting, professed Ugandan anti-gay campaigner, Martin Sempa, a church pastor had harsh words for the gay rights activists. “These people are illegal. They are in a wrong place and in a wrong forum. In Uganda, we do not have a place for such people,” he said.

His words are not isolated opinion, but also echoed by authorities. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo is widely known as one of the high profile gay bashers. On 2 June, Kihumuro Apuuli, Director General of the Uganda AIDS Commission, stated that, "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." The activists’ protest was partially in response to this statement.

The arresting police officers cast the activists as criminals. The Ugandan daily newspaper New Vision quoted police spokesperson Simeo Nsubunga as saying the rights activists had documents soliciting funding for their activities in Uganda. ‘’We are looking at a case of criminal trespass against them. They are not guests and were not invited,’’ he said.

In their petition, which they managed to hand over to some delegates at the high profile Royale Hotel, the rights activists called on donors and funding agencies to “help reduce the rate of infection and to alleviate the suffering of anyone infected or affected by AIDS.”

Although the activists sneaked into the venue without invitation, the poor handling of the incident by law enforcement only further perpetuates discrimination. Everyone has the right to show their anger or happiness on important issues by demonstrating in the way they feel is appropriate. Protests are usually a common feature of most global HIV/AIDS events. It was sheer discrimination!
If these same activists had posters praising the government and donor agencies, they would not have been arrested – a case of selective justice. A collective response to HIV/ AIDS is where the solution lies.

UNAIDS’ 2007 AIDS epidemic update notes that while Uganda was the first country in sub-Saharan to record a significant decrease in the deadly disease’s prevalence rate now there was a threat of the rate shooting up because of risky behaviour. It states that there is an urgent need to revive and adapt the kind of prevention efforts that helped bring Uganda’s HIV epidemic under control in the 1990s.’’ This need will only be met through the involvement of all people.

This does not mean that gay activists should get preferential treatment, but they should be seen and involved in important issues such as seeking solutions to issues of national importance, and not be discriminated because of their sexual orientation. Moreover, they, like other marginalised communities, should have the right to make their voices heard when they are not.

Fred Katerere is a freelance journalist based in Maputo. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news.

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