Activists arrested during attempt to highlight Uganda's neglect of HIV prevention for men who have sex with men

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Three gay, lesbian and transgender individuals have been arrested in Uganda after peacefully protesting about an announcement from the Ugandan AIDS Commission that no resources would be directed to HIV programmes targeting gay men and other men who have sex with men.

The arrests happened at the HIV/AIDS Implementers’ Meeting which is currently taking place in Uganda. Representing Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the three individuals were attempting to draw the delegates’ attention to a statement made by Kihumuro Auuli, Director General of the Uganda AIDSA Commission, on May 2nd that: “gays are one of the drivers of HIV in Uganda, but because of meagre resources we cannot direct our programmes to them at this time.”

An annual event, the HIV Implementer’s Meeting is co-sponsored by major HIV donors including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), UNAIDS, the World Bank, the Global Fund, UNAIDS, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (GNP+).

Glossary

UNAIDS

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) brings together the resources of ten United Nations organisations in response to HIV and AIDS.

representative sample

Studies aim to give information that will be applicable to a large group of people (e.g. adults with diagnosed HIV in the UK). Because it is impractical to conduct a study with such a large group, only a sub-group (a sample) takes part in a study. This isn’t a problem as long as the characteristics of the sample are similar to those of the wider group (e.g. in terms of age, gender, CD4 count and years since diagnosis).

malaria

A serious disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. 

transgender

An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

The protestors were attempting to gain access to the meeting in order to deliver a funding proposal for HIV prevention work with men who have sex with men to donors. They were arrested and detained by security staff, and charged with criminal trespass.

Ironically, the Implementers’ meeting is meant to be an opportunity to share information about best practice and lessons learned during the scale-up of HIV prevention and treatment programmes in resource-limited settings.

The arrests were condemned by Prof. Michel Kazatchkine, head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, and by Michel Sidibe of UNAIDS, during plenary sessions at the conference.

Mark Dybul, head of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, subsequently authorised the registration of the protestors at the meeting, and told activists that representations had been made by the meeting organisers to ensure their release.

There has been concern for some time that Uganda is not only failing to acknowledge the HIV prevention needs of gay men and other men who have sex with men, but pursuing aggressively homophobic policies.

Studies have recently shown that gay men in Uganda have an HIV prevalence level of 26%, but are not a target for HIV prevention. Guidelines for PEPFAR, one of the leading organisers of the implementers’ meeting, clearly state that men who have sex with men should be a priority for HIV prevention. However, the Ugandan health ministry has complained to UNAIDS about the inclusion of the needs of gay men in HIV prevention initiatives. This action was defended by a representative of the country’s AIDS Commission who said “the practice of homosexuality is illegal.”

In August 2007, the country’s deputy attorney general called for the criminal prosecution of gays and lesbians. Ugandan law imposes a possible life-sentence for “homosexual conduct” and “gross indecency” has a penalty of five years in jail with sodomy having a 14-year sentence.

The Ugandan authorities have also indicated that they are considering changing the law “so that the promotion [of homosexual conduct] itself becomes a crime” and said that “catalogues” were being compiled “of people we think are involved in perpetuating the vice of homosexuality.”

In November 2004, the Ugandan government fined the broadcaster, Radio Simba, for airing a programme that discussed prejudice against gay people and their need for HIV services. The government said the radio station had acted against “public morality.”

There is also concern that organisations in Uganda that are overtly homophobic or spread false information about the reliability of condoms have been receiving PEPFAR funds. The giving of funds to such organisations is specifically forbidden in PEPFAR guidelines.

One example of such an organisation is Pastor Martin Ssempa’s Makerere Community Church. His website has listed Ugandan gay rights activists, posting pictures and contact information and calling them “homosexual promoters.” The pastor testified before a committee of the US Congress in 2005 as a representative of the Ugandan First Lady’s AIDS Task Force. In August 2007 he helped organise a rally demanding government action against gay people, calling homosexual conduct “a criminal act against the laws of nature.”

The Makerere Community Church also disseminates information stating that condoms do not protect against HIV and has burnt condoms in public. The organisation has received $40,000 in PEPFAR funding to provide an abstinence education programme, according to Human Rights Watch.