In an interview, Roman Catholic health and human rights activist Maxensia Nakibuuka of Uganda tells what life has been like in Uganda since the passage of the harsh Anti-Homosexuality Bill there last December. She is interviewed here by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego, California, USA, with whom she has been working for the past three years.
Maxensia: The constitution of Uganda not only gives the power to the people but also clearly expresses fundamental human rights and freedoms such as freedom to speak, associate, and express oneself. Unfortunately, in this decade, Uganda has passed a number of laws that are depriving us of fundamental rights:
- NGOS MANAGEMENT AMENDMENT BILL – Bars NGOs from engaging in political work and expands government powers to monitor NGOs
- THE PUBLIC ORDER MANAGEMENT ACT 2013 – Grants police powers to prohibit public meetings. Grants the police powers to decide suitable venues for holding public meetings.
- ANTI HOMOSEXUALITY ACT 2014 – Poses grave threats for civil society organizations engaging in any advocacy work for gay rights. Criminalizes any person who “promotes homosexuality.” [Editor’s note: In July, the Constitutional Court overturned this law on procedural grounds.]
- THE ANTI PORNOGRAPHY ACT (KNOWN AS THE MINI-SKIRT LAW) – Has the objective of restoring public decency.
- THE HIV MANAGEMENT AND CONTROL ACT – For mandatory testing, disclosure, and penalties on intentional transmission.
I hope that the West will speak out and condemn these laws and bring about action as it did on the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), since our country subscribes to other international decrees and laws that prohibit injustices and discrimination against minority groups.
CUTS IN HEALTH FUNDING
Cutting health aid to Uganda affects me personally. As a mother with HIV given to me by my late spouse, I have proven that Anti-Retro Viral treatment (ARV) is a strong prevention and life-saving therapy. …
The limited Health Aid budget that we have now will reverse, instead of promote, the global goal of ZERO NEW INFECTIONS, ZERO NEW RELATED DEATHS, and ZERO TRANSMISSIONS. If more funds are not given to prevention and treatment, the result will be higher investment in HIV/AIDS in the future.
Albert: As a health care provider, what has changed since the AHA and HIV bills passed?
Maxensia: These two laws will take Uganda in the wrong direction, as predicted by the Uganda AIDS Commission and our Ministry of Health. We will therefore not achieve the AIDS-free generation that our government committed to when adopting the laws. Experts in Uganda such as UNAIDS and the Uganda Human Rights Commission have determined the laws to be discriminatory, with key provisions that will impede the fight against AIDS.
Human rights and HIV activists wonder why Uganda, among other countries, is avoiding evidence-based interventions that are known to work. The laws are founded on stigma and discrimination and based on outmoded approaches that have been condemned by health agencies worldwide as ineffective and violating the rights of people living with HIV. The two laws will drive criminalized populations, i.e., sex workers and gay men, away from lifesaving services they need. The professional ethics of client confidentiality, so basic for all medical workers, have been encroached upon, with the law saying “where she/he has to do mandatory disclosure not limited to one’s partner, spouse but to everyone who might be at risk without the consent of the client” and also to report to police any person suspected of practicing homo-sex.”
We need to partner with people living with HIV, LGBTI people, sex workers, all at-risk communities. We must not blame them, criminalize them or exclude them from policy-making. The laws have created fear among the targeted communities and have reduced the numbers who voluntary come for counseling, testing, and treatment. They fear imprisonment if they are tested. They fear telling their spouses/partners. Infection spreads. Cannot we prevent and treat infection? Cannot we educate at-risk people on how to keep from infecting others?
As the CSO Coalition on HIV in Uganda, we wrote to President Museveni about our disagreement with his approval of the AHA and HIV bill. Our letter fell on deaf ears for political reasons since we are nearing national political campaigns next year and hence elections in 2016. The Ministry of Health’s AIDS Control Program and the Board Chair of the Uganda AIDS Commission and many independent health rights groups in Uganda have criticized the interference of politics and handouts.
Our activism and solidarity of the coalition on HIV in Uganda caused the nullification of the AHA in the courts of laws. We plan to collect relevant information and sign another petition to the court on the HIV Act as well.
Albert: The Good Samaritan Consortium was formed almost two years ago [to improve health care for LGBTI people in Uganda] and we approached the U.S. Embassy for help. What has happened since those meetings and are you seeing any significant support coming from the U.S.?
Maxensia: My life is in danger despite our numerous consultative meetings at the embassy in Uganda. My public support for the most at-risk populations as I work with the Catholic Church in Uganda, Africa, and internationally has brought threats because of the political environment and the criminalizing laws. I don’t see support or attention given to this Consortium as a platform that has strived to bring the voices of diverse team players from both the LGBTI community and straight allies to one table to devise ways of efficient and inclusive service delivery in Uganda. The diversity of services my organization delivered for seven months in conjunction with the Uganda Health Marketing Group (UHMG) made a great impact in our community.
As a result of the loss of $6 million from the US government to the Inter-Religious Council, I have seen drastic fallout. The IRC was too politically involved in pressuring parliament to pass the law and the consequences were not fully realized by religious leaders. For example, UHMG was terminated from getting USAIDS because some of the groups it worked with (NOT us) were discriminating against LGBTI people and other at-risk people. USAID did not consider a replacement for UHMG and sub-grantees like us, even though we were receiving almost 1/10 of the funding. Our clients remain desperate.
My organization lost almost all of its volunteer staff because the contract was terminated before outstanding payments at UHMG were paid. This made it impossible for a poor widow such as I to cater for our organization’s needs from my pocket. I cannot pay school fees for my orphan teenagers who are in Kampala universities. Consortium budgets have not been considered for funding due to strict policies and donor funding bureaucracies and restrictions amidst all challenging situations in the country apart from the support that has been mobilized by the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation.
Albert: How have the cuts in the inter-religious council impacted you and your health network? Has the religious community had second thoughts about their participation in creating these kinds of legislation?
Maxensia: As a result of the laws and the Western countries cutting health funding, the lives of people living with HIV have been severely impacted. Major services have been terminated for most of the health care centers, such as home-based care support, food provision and medical outreach programs. Clients are left to take care of their own health, medical costs, and distant commutes to get medication. They were once able to get medicine at our local centers. But now they must compete with the massive congestion of people at the public health centers with limited staff.
The public center client-to-medical worker ratio has increased leading to inefficient service provisions, non-adherence to medication, psychological trauma, self-denial and stigma, depression, suicide, fear and shame among the LGBTI, reduced ability to work a job, and reduced income due to social malaise. This is leading to new infections, new transmissions and increased deaths.
This is what my organization has been doing to help ourselves. This month we have successfully engaged with the leadership of Lubaga Cathedral, which is the National Catholic Church in Uganda, to dialogue on the issues of reduced health funding from the IRCU, bridging the health gaps, and also forging a way forward on new strategies of inclusive service delivery. According to the reports from James Rwomushana, our Projects Coordinator, the way forward is promising.
Albert: As a straight ally who has made several important contributions to the State Department, the National Cathedral, Rome and Cameroon in the past two years, what successes do you see the [St. Paul’s Foundation] network meeting and what remain the challenges?
Maxensia: The St. Paul’s Foundation has enabled me to share my story, express the need for collaboration and networking on AIDS and has re-affirmed that dialogue is the best option if the minority can be given a chance to be listened to. The Foundation work is not a lip service. With limited resources, they have walked the talk. I can see new avenues opening up for us! We have made allies and documented important information for the advocacy approach.
Limited resources are preventing us in meeting our targets. We are trying to raise funds through events and writing grant proposals, but those take time and our clients need help now. Continuity and sustainability in terms of service delivery, communication, governance and leadership are hindered. Lack of back and forth meetings deters follow-ups and monitoring of commitments. This also creates a lot of gaps in our advocacy strategy.
HOW TO HELP
Albert: How can the average American help you and this cause?
Maxensia: Based on the support from St. Paul’s Foundation and the positive impact it has had in our communities, we need more empathetic individuals who can lend a hand in this struggle in any manner possible economically, socially, politically, or otherwise.
We need support to carry out research on the key areas of intervention. It can be:
- Passing a message to your neighbor about the work we do for the suffering and criminalized minority groups in Uganda.
- Volunteerism such as what a local San Diegan nurse did when he visited Uganda last December.
- Continued fundraising for our activities.
- Buying or selling our handcrafts.
- Connecting us to any compassionate people or networks that you know.
- Giving us tools and gadgets like computers, phones, wireless internet to ease communication and training. An SMS message goes faster than a letter in post office.
- Helping our most vulnerable groups with income generating tools such as sewing machines and creating a market for their products.
- Giving us the opportunity to speak at different forums.
- Talk more to us and about us.
- Please give us advice.
With your help, our lives will never be the same. Thank you!
For more information, see the full article in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, “RGOD2: Making bricks without straw – life in Uganda since the anti-gay law.”
- No Hope for AIDS-Free Generation in Uganda as Controversial HIV Bill is Signed into Law (ipsnews.net)
- Uganda’s anti-gay law will make AIDS harder to fight (76crimes.com)
- HIV-positive activist to Uganda: Stop impeding AIDS battle (76crimes.com)
- Destination: Cameroon. Goal: LGBT health, justice (76crimes.com)
- Progress in Uganda: Catholics’ first-ever AIDS day (76crimes.com)
- Strategy: Let’s stop simply preaching to the gay choir (76crimes.com)
- Global conflict: Faith, gay rights, and repression (76crimes.com)