KAMPALA, UGANDA - Ugandan lawmakers this week passed a bill on sexual offenses that would increase punishments for offenders and would strengthen protection for victims. But critics note the measure also would enshrine the criminalization of same-sex relations, sex work and those living with HIV.
Monica Amoding, the legislator who pushed for the Sexual Offenses Act, said that for 10 years there has been a high incidence of sexual offenses, with sexual violence topping the list of crimes that needed to be battled.
However, not everyone supported the bill.
Under terms of the act, consensual same-sex relationships would remain a crime in Uganda and could lead to 10 years in prison.
Amoding said it wasn't surprising that parliament came up with the penalty, mainly because parliament is a mirror of its society.
“With this provision, at least the punishment has been reduced to 10 years, which was life imprisonment earlier on," she said. "So it means that some things are changing. The mindset of people is changing. Parliament is changing. Maybe in due course, society will appreciate this as well.”
In a statement Thursday, Mausi Segun, the Human Rights Watch Africa director, urged Uganda to focus on ending endemic sexual violence rather than seeing this as an opportunity to embed what he called abusive provisions that criminalize the sex lives of consenting adults.
Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, described the act as alarming.
"It shows how conservative Uganda is," he said. "Because there have been several recommendations to parliament. First of all, not to criminalize people because of their sexual orientation or because of who they choose to love. So this expanded criminalization, in a way. It shows you how our parliament is obsessed with homosexuality.”
The act defines a sexual harassment suspect as a person who makes direct or indirect advances or requests, whether verbal or written; displays sexually suggestive pictures or gestures; or makes sexually oriented comments, jokes or offensive flirtations. The crime would be punishable by seven years in prison or a fine of $1,700 or both.
'It won't work' for men
On the streets of Kampala, Ben Kawaida said that as a man, he must use certain words and gestures to interest a woman.
“I won’t accept it," he said of the bill. "It won’t work for us young men. Because as men we must entice women. Through actions, through messages and many other things. Yeah, so how do I go about it? Does that mean enticement should stop?”
The act, among other things, also would require mandatory HIV testing of defendants and would treat HIV status as an aggravating factor when a person is accused of specific sexual offenses.
Proponents of the bill said they were torn on how to balance justice between offenders and victims in cases where HIV-positive people intentionally infect others.
The act requires President Yoweri Museveni’s signature for it to become law.