HIV/AIDS in Uganda: Myth to reality
A series of articles by guest writers for World AIDS Day
Part of AVERT's World AIDS Day 2012 campaign, ‘Reflections on the Epidemic’ are a series of articles by guest writers.
Our guest writers range from global leaders, writers, experts, activists, physicians and people personally affected by HIV and AIDS; and they represent various countries, experiences and backgrounds from all over the world.
We are grateful to all our guest writers for their effort and the diverse and insightful viewpoints that they contributed to the world’s response to HIV and AIDS.
You can also see all articles and writers in this series at the end of every article.
Uganda started suffering the aggressive grip of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and it was immediately attached to witchcraft. Because of ignorance, many died without accessing treatment. In 1986, after President Yoweri Museveni took office, the public discussions on sex and issues surrounding the causes and prevention of HIV/AIDS started to happen. The causes shifted in people’s minds from witchcraft to mainly unprotected sex. People began using condoms and accessing medical services, but still the issue remained a taboo. HIV/AIDS stopped being a myth and became real. People die every day due to lack of access to HIV/AIDS services.
Since 1992, the government has been implementing different initiatives to try to tackle HIV/AIDS such as the creation of the Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC) and the establishment of routine testing, among others. However, despite these different initiatives, a new American-financed survey said that HIV infection rates in Uganda have increased to 7.3 percent today from 6.4 percent in 2005 and Uganda is one of only two African countries, along with Chad, where AIDS rates are on the rise.1
One of the reasons is the lack of initiatives that targets lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people or men who have sex with men (MSM) to access HIV/AIDS health services. Nonetheless, MSM are among the population at most risk and are constantly experiencing discrimination and stigma. In addition to the discrimination, the criminalization of homosexuality prevents them from accessing public health services and pushes them underground. They frequently engage in same-sex relationships outside their marriage due to the pressure of cultural and religious norms. The LGBT community in Uganda is now visible, so there is no way we can deny that MSM do exist, but because there is no preventive information on HIV/AIDS for MSM in Uganda, many of them continue to engage in unsafe sex.
Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has been trying to help close this gap. SMUG recently established a health clinic in one of its member organisations, Icebreakers Uganda. The health clinic offers free testing, treatment, prevention, and counselling services for LGBT/MSM for HIV/AIDS and all sexually transmitted diseases, in a safe environment. The clinic has registered enormous numbers of LGBT/MSM persons who have accessed services from the clinic in its five months of existence.
In addition to the health clinic, SMUG continues to request the Ugandan Ministry of Health for comprehensive research on MSM and women who have sex with women (WSM) issues as they relate to HIV/AIDS. We continue to ask the Ministry of Health to work closely with LGBT organizations and allow for LGBT individuals and groups to present health concerns to the Ministry.
However, Uganda is considering the introduction of a law that would require Ugandans to report any known homosexual to the authorities. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which has been under discussion since 2009, would also criminalise homosexuality, making it punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty for gay people living with HIV/AIDS or serial 'offenders'. The Ugandan speaker of parliament has indicated that she will pass this law as a 'Christmas present' to the Ugandan nation.2
If this bill is passed it will push men who have sex with men more underground and will increase the risk of HIV/AIDS. The only way to tackle HIV/AIDS issues in Uganda is to include the LGBT community in the existing public health services and ensure that these health services are available to all without discrimination.
Frank Mugisha, a prominent young advocate for the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, is the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a leading organisation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) movement in the East African country. Mr Mugisha began advocating for LGBTI rights and HIV/AIDS awareness as a university student in 2004. He spearheaded the support group Icebreakers Uganda, which provides resources and support to those who are openly gay or are coming out. As a result of his vocal advocacy, Mr. Mugisha has lost jobs and friends and become estranged from his family. As the Executive Director of SMUG, Mr. Mugisha received the Rafto Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
For further information on issues surrounding gay men in Africa, see AVERT's page.
Images: 'A protest against the Ugandan anti-homosexuality Bill, 2009', copyright: Kaytee Riek. 'Frank Mugisha', courtesy of author.
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All opinions expressed in 'Reflections on the Epidemic' do not necessarily represent those of AVERT.
- 1. New York Times (2012, August 2) 'In Uganda, an AIDS Success Story Comes Undone'
- 2. PlusNews (2012, November 13) 'UGANDA: Anti-gay bill could be passed before Christmas'