Things are heating up in the capital city of Uganda today. The Walk to Work protest movement is gaining momentum, and there is some inadvertently artful humor in the use of a pink dye that authorities are spraying on demonstrators in order to break up the protest. This is because as early as today, the day before President Museveni is due to be sworn into office again, the controversial bill imposing harsh penalties for homosexual activities— first introduced in 2009— could be before the Ugandan parliament once more.
Some activists in Uganda suggest that the sudden reintroduction of the bill into the public agenda is an attempt by the government to draw attention away from the egregious reactions of the security forces to the Walk to Work demonstrations. This not only appears not to be working very well, but the bill’s swift re-emergence the very week the current parliamentary session is supposed to end leaves very little time for an activist response to it. Petitions have been issued by All Out and Avaaz in an attempt to draw international condemnation of the bill and put pressure on the government to reject it.
Anti-homosexual sentiment in Uganda is widespread and closely intertwined with the positions of the Evangelical Christian and Pentecostal churches, not only in Uganda but in the United States. The criminalization of homosexuality has its roots in British colonial history, when missionaries and colonial representatives viewed it as “unnatural” and therefore “un-African.” More recently, the influence of the American Evangelical movement has played a significant role in stoking existing Ugandan fears that homosexuality is immoral and will destroy traditional family life.
Homosexuality is already punishable by incarceration for up to fourteen years in Uganda. The original anti-gay bill mandated the death penalty for cases such as homosexual acts by those who are HIV positive or same sex acts with anyone under eighteen. In response to the international media outcry over the bill in 2009, it was revised so as not to include any death penalty provisions, and in May of last year an advisory committee recommended the bill be withdrawn entirely. Many well known church members are opposed to the death penalty provisions on moral grounds, and Retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has come out against the criminalization of homosexuality on the grounds that criminalization does nothing to prevent it, and furthermore, has serious implications for human rights and public health.
The bill’s reappearance is alarming, though it is unlikely parliament will have time to vote on the bill before the current session expires. It is, however, once again up for debate and discussion. Hearings held Friday and Monday indicate that a new version of the bill will be negotiated, most likely dropping the death penalty provisions and most likely being dealt with in the next parliamentary session
One remaining question is that of enforceability; allegations and arrests are likely to be arbitrary and abusive, and it would be impossible to enforce such a bill nation-wide. Another issue is that bill or no bill, the broader problem of social marginalization will still be lurking.
UPDATE: It would appear that the Ugandan parliament has scrapped plans to re-introduce the bill.