A new Ugandan law that seeks to better protect victims of sexual violence has been criticised by rights campaigners who say it discriminates against vulnerable groups including LGBT+ people, sex workers and those living with HIV.
The Sexual Offences Bill has drawn praise for provisions such as protecting victims during trials and outlawing sexual harassment, but it also criminalises gay sex and sex work and sets out harsher sentences for HIV-positive rape defendants.
UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said she was “deeply troubled” by parts of the legislation, which consolidates existing laws and rulings and was passed by parliament earlier this week.
“Targeting people living with HIV, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and sex workers increases stigma and discrimination,” Byanyima said in a statement, saying that could set back Uganda’s progress to combat HIV/AIDS.
“(This) undermines the HIV response by preventing people from receiving the HIV treatment, prevention and care services that they so urgently need,” she added.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
In addition to the tougher sentences, the law also requires mandatory HIV testing for rape suspects.
President Yoweri Museveni must still sign the bill before it can become law, and UNAIDS and other human rights groups are urging Ugandan parliamentarians to reconsider the contentious provisions.
Gay sex is already punishable by life imprisonment in the East African country, but the new law reiterates the ban and also defines anal sex as “an unnatural offence”.
The legislation also criminalises engaging in sex work, operating a brothel and buying services from a sex worker.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch noted that while the bill criminalises consensual sexual acts, it allows non-consensual acts such as marital rape to go unpunished.
Ugandan legal rights group the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum said the legislation was a regression in the movement for the protection and promotion of sexual and reproductive rights.
“The spirit of the law in certain provisions is one of intolerance, a factor that should not exist in a free and democratic society,” the organisation said in a statement.
Uganda has made good progress in recent years in reducing the impact of HIV, UNAIDS said, with AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections falling by 60% and 43% respectively since 2010. Most Ugandans living with HIV take antiretroviral medication.
However, many vulnerable groups of people, such as gay men and other men who have sex with men and sex workers, continue to be less likely than the general population to receive the HIV treatment, prevention and care services they need, it adds.