With just one week to go before World AIDS Day, the fact that the Ugandan government is poised to pass its notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill would be ironic if it wasn't so tragic. If passed, the bill - which would see any person alleged to be homosexual at risk of life imprisonment - will have a disastrous impact on the country's HIV response.
Other clauses within the bill mean that the reputation of anyone working with the gay or lesbian population such as medical doctors working on HIV and AIDS and civil society leaders active in the field of sexual and reproductive health could be severely compromised.
If the bill is passed it's likely to lead to even more HIV infections in politically isolated populations, especially among men who have sex with men. They will be prevented from having access to essential public health information, such as how to protect themselves from HIV and how to access life saving treatment and support services that are stigma-free.
With an HIV prevalence rate of 6.5%, Uganda is a country where a large number of people living with HIV do not know their status and where access to treatment is still below 60%. Recent national data indicates a decline in condom use and public health programming generally is impeded due to the criminalisation of homosexual behaviour and the related widespread stigma. Denying men who have sex with men and transgender people access to HIV-related services puts all of the country's citizens at risk.
Last September, Commonwealth ministers of foreign affairs - including the Ugandan minister - agreed that, "Heads of government should take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and commit to programmes of education that would help a process of repeal of such laws." Shame on the Ugandan parliament in that case for agreeing to even debate the bill in the light of such a commitment.
We have been here before with this dreadful bill. After a huge global outcry last year, Ugandan president Museveni blocked its progress but the speaker of parliament Rebecca Kadaga recently said that it would be passed as a "Christmas gift" to its advocates. It defies belief that somebody who has been entrusted to represent a nation's people could actively promote such a state-endorsed violation of basic human rights to self expression, autonomy, and to health.
The Global Commission on HIV and the Law recently presented incontrovertible evidence that discriminatory legislation such as criminalisation of homosexuality has a devastating impact and enhances HIV-related risks among men who have sex with men and other vulnerable groups most at risk of the epidemic. As the latest UNAIDS report on the Global Epidemic published this week indicates, it is such politically and socially isolated groups who bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic.
The Commission also stressed the need to have "laws that protect human rights to save lives, save money and end the epidemic."
An adverse legal environment where most at risk groups face being criminalised for their behaviour and made a target for harassment and violence is not the answer if we want to see the HIV epidemic brought under control.
To see a truly effective HIV response, civil society and health care providers have to be in a position to be able to work with all marginalised groups and be able to provide stigma-free services. If the bill is passed, it will change the course of the epidemic in the country in completely the wrong direction and put the lives of thousands at risk.
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