Researcher: In raid, Uganda police were clueless

Stella Nyanzi
Stella Nyanzi

Ugandan police who raided the U.S.-funded Makerere / Walter Reed health project on April 3 didn’t know enough to understand how researchers recruit and work with people involved in their research, says a research fellow at Makerere University.

The police believed they were seeing men being “recruited into homosexuality” when they were actually seeing homosexual men being recruited into a research project aimed at slowing the spread of AIDS, says researcher Stella Nyanzi.

Nyanzi is a postdoctoral research fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) and a senior researcher at the Law, Gender and Sexuality Research Project at Makerere University School Of Law in Kampala, Uganda.

Uganda police claimed that undercover investigators “infiltrated” the combined clinic and research facility, the Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP), to  verify a report that it “was carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts.

Galaxy radio report about the April 3 raid.
Galaxy radio report about the April 3 raid.

Ugandan media described the raid as “Police bust Homosexual training camp in Kampala.”

In response to the raid, the project was temporarily suspended “to ensure the safety of staff and beneficiaries, and the integrity of the program,” U.S. officials said.

Police bust Homosexual training camp in Kampala

Specifically, the police reported that the project:

  • “Targeted youth between the ages of 18 and 25.”
  • Showed its trainees “videos of men engaging in homosexual activity, and they were encouraged to bring along their sexual partners.”
  • Gave trainees “literature describing safe sexual practice between males, as well as condoms and lubricant.”
  • Paid trainees “UGX 10,000 to UGX 100,000 [US$4 to $40] as transport refund, at the end of each training session.”
  • Showed “a same-sex pornographic film” to “a large number of participants.”

Not so, says Nyanzi. In fact, she says:

  • Logo of the Makerere University Walter Reed Project
    Logo of the Makerere University Walter Reed Project

    “If a research study wants to measure the relationship between HIV infection and sexual behaviour, including homosexuality, a group of homosexuals will be recruited into the study. This does not mean recruitment into homosexuality. Individuals who identify as homosexuals are recruited into the research project.”

  • “The claim that poor individuals are paid money by this research project in order to become homosexuals is a lie. Most researchers in the sciences provide transport for individuals to participate in their studies. … Giving money to individuals for transport does not equate to paying them to become homosexuals. “
  • The police apparently believed they saw pornographic films when they were actually seeing sex-education films that are part of a research project aimed at learning how best to educate LGBT people about safe sex.

This is the full text of Nyanzi’s explanation of the research and what Ugandan police misunderstood:

Bollocks to the idea that research projects hide under affiliation to Makerere University in order to recruit young Ugandans into homosexuality.

Uganda Police Force logo
Uganda Police Force logo

The language of police officers speaking about their infiltration into the Walter Reed Project reveals misunderstandings about how research trials in epidemiology work. As a researcher based at Makerere University, who has variously been blamed for ‘recruiting homosexuals’, I am compelled to explain simply some of the apparent misunderstandings.

Firstly, all positivistic research aimed at measuring impacts and effects of one variable or more MUST recruit individuals into the study. Recruitment is a term used to mean that individuals who were not part of a research study are approached through various ways, given information about the study procedures and expectations, invited to voluntarily participate in the study, given the opportunity to refuse to take part and then upon accepting they are given identification numbers which help keeping tabs on their involvement in research activities. This recruitment procedure has been used to bring people into any research project especially in the sciences that work with human subjects.

If a research study wants to measure the relationship between HIV infection and sexual behaviour, including homosexuality, a group of homosexuals will be recruited into the study. This does not mean recruitment into homosexuality. Individuals who identify as homosexuals are recruited into the research project.

Secondly, the identification numbers that are given are an old technique in scientific research which help ensure the anonymity of people involved in research. Instead of using a person’s names, the identity remains a secret which is private. Confidentiality is enhanced because the information given cannot be traced back to the individual who spoke it, but rather to a serialised identity number. These numbers have got nothing sinister or necessarily ‘homosexual’ about them. Researchers have used this technique for years.

Thirdly, the claim that poor individuals are paid money by this research project in order to become homosexuals is a lie. Most researchers in the sciences provide transport for individuals to participate in their studies. Sometimes this transport involves a driver going to pick people from their homes to a research location and then taking them back home. More often the money that individuals spend on transport fares is refunded whenever they participate in a research activity. Giving money to individuals for transport does not equate to paying them to become homosexuals. Sometimes we give refreshments or a meal to research participants when they participate in our activities. Will the police then say that we are feeding Ugandans in order to make them homosexuals?

Fourthly, the police assert that the research project showed homosexual pornography to the research participants in order to make them homosexuals. What is pornography? The legal definition of pornography in the recent Anti-Pornography Act (2014) that was passed early this year is vague, problematic, too wide, and open to misinterpretation. Thus the violence targeting women wearing miniskirts. Given that our sex education in Uganda lacks balance because it is only limited to knowledge about men having penetrative vaginal sex with women, anything that may teach about men having sex with men or women having sex with women will be deemed pornography. In fact our president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni recently revealed that for him any sex outside the vagina is not sex.

But wait a minute. Men who have sex with men are among the most at-risk population groups for HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Sex education that targets improving their safe-sex in order to prevent or reduce high-risk sexual behaviour that may expose them to further risk for catching HIV is part of the necessary public health education that will reduce HIV levels in Uganda. Government claims that HIV/AIDS-prevention, care and treatment programs specific to homosexuals will not be affected by the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014), but the police has already rushed to raid and stop a safe-sex education program for homosexuals. Do you think we do not see the inconsistencies here?

Why would a research project provide sex education to homosexuals? People have asked this question, as if it is evidence for the claimed recruitment into homosexuality. Well, randomised controlled trials often have single or combined interventions that they provide to specific sub-samples. In my previous research around sex education and STIs including HIV/AIDS among young people in rural Masaka, we provided safe-sex education. Nobody complained because we were providing heterosexual sex education to our target groups which were students in primary and secondary schools.

Although I have not seen the research design of the MUWRP, it is highly likely that safe-sex education for men who have sex with men was part of the RCT interventions being tested through this particular research. If this is the case, then the research trial’s design demands that sex education be provided to this sub-sample of research participants. This was not pornography aimed at recruiting homosexuals into homosexuality. This was an integral component of how scientific research is conducted. There is nothing unethical about it.

I think that our police need a basic minimum of training into research methods. If they are going to be working with scientists and researchers producing cutting edge knowledge particularly among high risk groups that are criminalised including homosexuals and sex workers, it is important that they get exposed to research design – at a minimum! Otherwise, their lack of education, ignorance and enthusiasm is not only a disgrace but also a revelation of the gaps in knowledge requisite to engage with academic researchers. And then vital police resources are spent on bollocks rather than going for the thieves eating our public funds.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at info@76crimes.com. Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.

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