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Four Laws That Are Devastating Public Health in Uganda

On November 20, Uganda’s parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Bill, also known as the Narcotics Law. A draconian piece of legislation, the law purports to deter drug abuse by imposing inhumanely long prison sentences—a conviction for simple possession can land a person in a cell for 25 years.

The Narcotics Law is the fourth in a disturbing series of laws passed in the last 12 months, all of which defy public health principles and show blatant disregard for dignity and human rights.

These laws target individuals who are already marginalized by society and most in need of health services and support: people who sell sex to make ends meet for their families; LGBTI people living in fear of community violence; people hiding their HIV medication from their own families; and people struggling to manage drug dependence and other illnesses. Perhaps most harmful of all, parts of Ugandan society are interpreting these laws to justify violence and exclusion.

Taken together, these four laws amount to a full-fledged assault on public health and, if implemented, will result in rampant misuse of imprisonment.

The Anti-Pornography Act

Passed in December 2013, the Anti-Pornography Act prohibits pornography, a term defined to include “any representation … of the sexual parts of a person for … sexual excitement.” Soon after it was passed, the law provoked a terrifying response across Uganda, with dozens of reports of women being stripped naked in public by angry mobs.

In response to the violence, the cabinet withdrew the law “for review” in late February, just weeks after presidential assent, but not before it had endangered the lives of many women, in particular sex workers, across the country. Sources observing parliament indicate this review has not yet taken place.

The HIV Prevention and Management Act (HIV Law)

Uganda’s HIV Law criminalizes transmission and “attempted transmission” of HIV. From a legal perspective, the law’s broad language makes it particularly dangerous. Just about anyone who is HIV-positive can be accused of attempting to transmit HIV—an accusation that could get a person fired, evicted, or bludgeoned by a vigilante group.

From a public health perspective, decades of work on HIV shows that criminalization deters people from getting tested because they think that if they don’t know their status, they can’t be accused of transmitting HIV.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA)

The AHA was passed in December 2013, prompting an uproar from the international community that only seemed to fuel the fervor of Uganda’s conservative leaders. Put simply, the law proposed the draconian penalty of life in prison for people convicted of an act of homosexuality.

Since then, many acts of violence have been attributed to the law, forcing hundreds of gay men, lesbians, and transgender people into safe houses. In a sweeping clause, the law also prohibited a broad range of activities considered to promote homosexuality. For instance, in April, under the auspices of the AHA, a health-care project offering HIV services to men who have sex with men was raided by police because it was believed to be “training youths in homosexuality.”

Although the Constitutional Court overturned the AHA in August on technical grounds, the issue remains heated. Parliamentarians tabled signatures in support of a revised bill in early December and are promising to pass a new Anti-Homosexuality Act by Christmas.  

The Narcotics Law

Uganda’s latest legislative blow to public health, the Narcotics Law penalizes possession of illicit drugs with 10 to 25 years in prison. Trafficking—which encompasses everything from small sales to international export—is punishable with a life sentence. Even those who never come across an illicit substance can find themselves ensnared.

The law goes so far as to levy a five-year prison sentence for failure to disclose prior prescriptions for narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances (including those held for pets and farm animals) when receiving a new prescription. Punitive laws like this push people away from health and social services that are vital to managing drug dependence, preventing transmission of HIV, and supporting people to live full and productive lives.    

“Drug use in Uganda is on the rise. We need an open environment in which we can share information and talk about addiction,” said a representative of the Uganda Harm Reduction Network. “By further criminalizing drug use, this law pushes people into the shadows. People are afraid to talk and afraid to seek much-needed medical help because the government has now definitively positioned drug use as a justice issue, rather than a health issue.”

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