By Sara Perle
The second week of October 2010 saw the meeting of the CEDAW Committee in Geneva to consider the reports of various countries – including that of Uganda. Kasha N. Jacqueline, the Executive Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), an organization that fights for the rights of lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda, attended that session along with an IGLHRC staff person, human rights activists from Uganda, Malta, and the Czech Republic, and several staff of the Malaysian NGO, International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific. These activists had the opportunity to engage in an interactive dialogue with the CEDAW Committee, presenting the key issues of their shadow reports and answering further questions the Committee had about their States’ human rights records.
Kasha spoke of the many violations and recommendations included in the FARUG shadow report, particularly noting the explicit exclusion of sexual minorities from the Ugandan Equal Opportunities Commission. However, she also brought to the Committee’s attention violations that had occurred only days before–when a Ugandan tabloid, “Rolling Stone,” printed a list of the names, pictures, and contact information of “known homosexuals,” including members of FARUG, with the headline “Hang Them.” As a result of that publication one of FARUG’s members, who had also contributed to the CEDAW shadow report, had been attacked at her house and on the street with stones being thrown at her.
“Again a week ago upon my arrival in Geneva a newspaper published our names in the press and exposed our photos, one of my members exposed in this paper was attacked by men in her neighborhood and stones were thrown at her and her house. But she has nowhere to run because the authorities always claim its illegal to be homosexual and so we deserve it. The newspaper said “HANG THEM” on the front page which is extreme hate speech and incitement to violence.”
Sharing such information was not limited to this formal session. The next day, Kasha joined other Ugandan women’s human rights advocates in an informal luncheon dialogue with the Committee members. During this time, the Committee members who attended asked for clarification and more information about the issues presented in the shadow reports, the government reports, and other issues not included in either of these but which were of concern to the Committee. In response to one member’s request for more information about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 Kasha explained the ramifications of the Bill’s passage and the current effect its debate is having on Uganda. In an important show of support from mainstream human rights and women’s groups, the other activists joined in denouncing the bill as antithetical to women’s human rights in Uganda, regardless of sexual orientation.
At the end of the luncheon, the real challenges faced by activists such as Kasha were brought home in an exchange with Committee members. Kasha challenged the Committee members to question the government’s commitment to human rights treaties that Uganda has signed, such as CEDAW, when these same treaties are so openly flouted. One member of the Committee responded sharply, “Why don’t you ask your own government this?” Before any of the activists had a chance to respond to this, another Committee member turned to her colleague and answered, “Because they would arrest her!”
Consideration of the State Report and Government Responses
The CEDAW Committee also engaged directly with the representatives from the Ugandan Government. In this dialogue, issues relating to the human rights of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda were raised in many questions by several CEDAW Committee members.
In particular, the Committee members stated that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 would inherently violate Uganda’s commitments under CEDAW, to not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The Committee members also expressed concern at reports that the Ugandan media was explicitly inciting violence against LGBT people, including the recent “hang them” article – mentioned to the committee by Kasha – in the tabloid, “Rolling Stone.” The Committee members pointed out that many LBT women face violence at home and in public, are expelled from schools, and face discrimination in the area of health care, and asked how the government was going to address these issues.
The response of the Ugandan government to the Committees questions was troubling but not entirely surprising. They stated that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was not a Government initiative and had nothing to do with the Government. A member of the Committee challenged the government on this. However their representative insisted that the bill had not come up for debate yet so there was nothing to discuss. The government also explained that their understanding of homosexuality in Uganda was that it did not have the same appearance as it did in other countries, and that it was practiced in prisons, was a choice, was found among young people where poverty was a driving factor, and same-sex relationships within families–implying, presumably, incest.
They insisted that there was still research that needed to be done in terms of homosexuality in Uganda because this had policy implications in terms of HIV/AIDS programmes and other outreach initiatives. One delegate stated that because “homosexuals” are not legally recognized in Uganda, they are treated like other people when it came to programmes and policies. The delegation also said that when newspapers printed things that could incite violence in the public against homosexuals or others, there was no way the Government could stop them from publishing what they wanted.
Ultimately the engagement with the CEDAW Committee proved to be very productive.
A few weeks after the 47th Session of CEDAW, the Committee issued its concluding observations to all the States under review in that Session. These included specific recommendations on what the states – including Uganda – should each do in order to fulfill their obligations under the CEDAW Convention. For FARUG and others in Uganda these recommendations can be used in local and national advocacy, to pressure the government to bring about change.
The Committee’s made the following strong observations and recommendations to Uganda regarding sexual orientation and gender identity:
Sexual orientation and gender identity
43. The Committee notes with grave concern that homosexual behaviour is criminalized in Uganda. The Committee also expresses its serious concern about reported harassment, violence, hate crimes and incitement of hatred against women on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Committee is further concerned that they face discrimination in employment, health care, education and other fields. Furthermore, the Committee notes with concern the private member’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the contents of which would result in further discrimination of women on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
44. The Committee calls on the State party to decriminalize homosexual behaviour and to provide effective protection from violence and discrimination against women based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, in particular through the enactment of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that would include the prohibition of multiple forms of discrimination against women on all grounds, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. To this end, the Committee urges the State party to oppose the private member’s proposed Anti- Homosexuality Bill. The Committee also urges the State party to intensify its efforts to combat discrimination against women on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity, including by launching a sensitization campaign aimed at the general public, as well as providing appropriate training to law enforcement officials and the public at large.
By framing the human rights violations against lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda as a broader issue of discrimination against women in Uganda, the CEDAW Committee has sent the strong message to the government that these abuses are not just against a small, unpopular minority, but that they hurt the human rights of all women in Uganda, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Likewise, this framework also highlights the extreme discrimination faced by lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and compounded by their sex and/or gender.
To find out more about creating shadow reports to CEDAW that are inclusive of lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, see IGLHRC’s guide, “Equal and Indivisible.”