Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni assented to the anti-homosexuality bill on 29 May 2023. The new law legislates, among other things, a five-year jail term for “promoting homosexuality”, a seven-year jail term for “attempted homosexuality”, life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” and a death penalty for specific sexual acts. Previously there has been been historical surveillance and targetting of queer people in Uganda, but no penalties nearly as harsh as this.
This is reflective of a spate of new laws across Africa. Their proponents argue that they protect the heterosexual African family and “African values” in a rejection of “western norms”.
Similar laws have been proposed in Ghana and Kenya. In July 2021, members of Ghana’s parliament proposed the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill. In April 2023, a Kenyan member of parliament introduced a Family Protection Bill. Among other things, it prohibits sexual health services and sexual health rights education.
My research indicates that these bills endanger people’s lives by gathering together shifting notions of “African culture”, “Christianity” and “family values”. They’ll also cause a crackdown on basic sexual and reproductive health services and education, including lifesaving HIV/AIDS services. While targeting gender and sexually diverse people, they’re actually pushing a conservative interpretation of gender relations and roles.
As an African political sociologist who researches and teaches gender and sexuality, I argue that these laws are a backlash. They are a response by patriarchal societies to increased freedoms for previously marginalised groups, including women and girls. These freedoms are seen in increased participation of women in political spaces, improved access to education and steps to prevent gender-based violence.
The anti-homosexuality law in Uganda is a significant and dangerous move. It dismantles decades of gains in equitable public health access and gender equality. It reverses positive shifts that have been witnessed in people’s lives as a result.
It is important to see these bills and laws as part of a broader context across Europe, Latin America, the UK and the US. In the name of protecting “family values”, there is a growing coalition of global players – including far right political parties and Christian evangelical groups – who can mobilise financial resources to support African parliamentarians to develop these laws.
Some of these financial resources unfortunately also come from development funders. A 2022 investigative report points to international donor funding flowing towards churches and associated groups that propelled anti-LGBTIQ+ legislation in Ghana.
This contradictory funding pattern is also observed in Uganda. The British government has been funding the Inter Religious Council of Uganda – a homophobic religious organisation. While it can be argued that this was given to support activities such as anti-corruption initiatives, these resources work against core principles that the British government argues it stands for.
Funding is given to organisations whose public rhetoric inflames societies against LGBTIQ+ communities. This feeds into the agenda of lawmakers, who are reliant on mobilising “religious and cultural views” as the moral justification for their proposed new laws.
US evangelical churches have also supported anti-LGBTIQ+ rhetoric through “training” and financial resources. This was evident in American evangelist Scott Lively’s role in the 2009 Bahati Bill in Uganda. The bill was a proposed precursor to the new anti-homosexuality law. And, more recently, the role of groups such as Family Watch International in the anti-homosexuality law that Museveni has assented to.
There is a convergence between Christian fundamentalist groups, conservative secular actors and political organising. This remains a critical concern for those of us interested in understanding how various actors mobilise to overturn hard won freedoms. These freedoms include the reclamation of formal political spaces – parliaments, political parties and legislation.
What needs to be done about it
A petition has been filed in Uganda’s Constitutional Court to challenge the new anti-homosexuality act.
A number of additional steps should also be taken.
Firstly, the wave of new laws demands transnational organising. The latest law is not just about LGBTIQ+ people in Uganda. It’s about the rights of every person, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation. A collective movement – one that cuts through differences – is needed.
Secondly, litigation in Uganda must become one of several strategies used.
Thirdly, there is need to track money, and associated advocacy, to stop the development funding that goes to anti-LGBTIQ+ groups.
Lastly, more research is needed to understand the connections between anti-LGBTIQ+ groups across regions. This will allow activist responses that are informed by a full understanding of the actors involved in undermining human rights in Africa for sexual and gender minorities as well as women and girls.
Awino Okech, Associate professor in political sociology, SOAS, University of London