Court ruling over anti-gay law 'fragile gain' for anti-HIV aid in Uganda

Well-known Ugandan LGBT activists Frank Mugisha and Dennis Wamala upon receiving news that the country’s Constitutional Court has declared the anti-homosexuality law unconstitutional. Photo by: International HIV/AIDS Alliance

There were “tears, dancing and celebration” in Uganda on Friday after the Constitutional Court declared null and void the country's anti-homosexuality law, giving LGBT activists and civil society groups respite from a long battle over Ugandans' human rights and their freedom to access anti-HIV treatment without fear of prosecution.

The court ruling, experts argue, is largely due to the relentless campaigning by advocates in Uganda and pressure from donors — some of whom suspended aid to the country following the passing of the law in February. It now limits the government's capacity to go after organizations supporting LGBT rights in the country and gives hope to similar movements in nations like Nigeria, where a similar anti-gay law is still in place.

But the fight for gay rights is far from over in Uganda.

Not everyone is in good spirits about the decision, and some advocates believe it will take much more than a court ruling to end public stigmatization and discrimination against homosexuals, a situation perpetuated by the law.

"Attitudes have become entrenched and it won't be possible to change them overnight," Anton Ofield-Kerr, head of policy at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, told Devex.

It will take some time, he said, for homosexuals to "feel safe" again in accessing health care, particularly HIV prevention and treatment services.

Cheikh Traore, a staunch gender and HIV advocate across more than 25 countries, said there already were "signs of public anger at the decision."

"Hearts and minds in Uganda have not shifted on the issue," he said.

The negative public reaction to the court ruling, however, is just part of the problem. The court overturned it because it lacked the minimum number of lawmakers when it was passed, not because it found the legislation trampling on human rights, thereby raising fears of the possibility of its reintroduction. Also, a separate law that requires mandatory HIV testing and the disclosure without consent of a patient's medical record is still in effect. Experts have repeatedly denounced that law, arguing it could only exacerbate the growing HIV epidemic in the country, driving high-risk populations further underground.

The motive behind the court’s move was also troubling for many.

Traore was in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, when the ruling was announced. He was meeting with several civil society groups to determine Uganda's funding priorities for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but had to do it out of the country for safety reasons.

"We heard about the decision of the Constitutional Court to meet [prior to Friday]. This was odd for many reasons, and we quickly suspected political motives," he said.

One of these is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s presence at this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., where Museveni is likely to face intense pressure from U.S. NGOs and civil society over the law. The United States has suspended aid to Uganda, redirected part of it to NGOs and other bilateral partners, and imposed travel bans on Ugandan officials involved in “serious” human rights abuses against the LGBT community.

In addition, some groups think the ruling may have come at precisely the right time to secure funding from the Global Fund, which Traore said now has "firmer requirements on human rights and most-at-risk populations."

With such a fragile gain, Ofield-Kerr underlined the need for continuous monitoring of the situation and sustained advocacy. In Uganda there's a strong movement fighting the law, same as in India, where same-sex relations is also criminalized, but in Nigeria he fears there's not enough international condemnation, as well as a strong LGBT and human rights networks.

"We're in for a long battle there," he said.

Kelli Rogers contributed reporting.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.