COVID-19 and Human Rights: Interview with 2015 Laureate Kasha J. Nabagesera

News 15.05.2020

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, and the government has been hardening its stance against the LGBTI community, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 27, UN human rights experts expressed concern that Uganda could be using COVID-19 emergency laws to target LGBIT persons. What are the challenges facing them in Uganda amid COVID-19? We caught up with Right Livelihood Award Laureate and LGBTI activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera for more insights.

A landlocked country in East Africa, Uganda has rebounded from the abyss of civil war to become a relatively stable and peaceful nation. However, even today, Uganda still struggles with the aftermath of civil war, widespread poverty, health epidemics and a lack of fundamental human rights. With a fast-growing population – expected to reach 100 million by 2050 – and the presence of the world’s third-largest refugee population, Uganda occupies the 159th, out of 189 positions in the Human Development Index.

Homosexuality is illegal in most countries on the African continent, and Uganda is not an exception. While the country has won praise for its vigorous campaign against HIV/AIDS, it has also attracted international attention for its hardening stance against the LGBTI community. In this mostly conservative Christian country, homosexual sex is punishable by life imprisonment.

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera is one of the most courageous and outspoken human rights activists in Africa, fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Uganda. She has been arrested, attacked and subject to harassment.

She received the Right Livelihood Award in 2015, for “her courage and persistence, despite violence and intimidation, in working for the right of LGBTI people to a life free from prejudice and persecution”.

What is the current situation in Uganda, and what are the major concerns? 

The official data report 89 cases, but it is probably an underestimation of the reality, as it is difficult to reach out to the population and make the tests. There are a lot of homeless people living in the streets, unable to respect the lockdown, easily exposed to contamination, and not tested.

The health infrastructures are weak, and access to medications is extremely difficult, particularly for those living in the countryside, far from the capital. A lot of people don’t approach the health services spontaneously when feeling sick and might die at home.

We received news that recently, members of the Ugandan LGBTI community were taken into custody by the police. Do you have any details on what exactly happened? How is their situation now and how is your work affected?

At the end of March, fourteen gay men, two bisexual men and four transgender women were beaten and taken into custody when police raided a shelter on the outskirts of Kampala. They were charged with disobeying rules on physical distancing and risking the spread of coronavirus. But everybody knows that these people were at home and they all know each other. In prison, they will be more at risk.

Given the present situation, it has been impossible to pay a visit to them, and also to provide them with legal assistance. The lawyer who always assists the LGBTI community is ready to be involved in the case.

The main concern for me is to be able to post the bail to let them out of prison, and also to find adequate accommodations. The place where they were arrested was their temporary home as they don’t have any other place to go.

The majority of the LGBTI people in Uganda are rejected not only by the society, but also by their families and don’t have a shelter. I am very much concerned by this situation, as the COVID-19 is giving an excellent excuse to expel them from their makeshift accommodations.

As soon as the lockdown is lifted (not before May 18 – ed.) I will be able to map the situation better and reach out to those still in the street.

What impact is the crisis having on the stigmatisation of the LGBTI community?

The raid against the group of LGBTI followed complaints to police from neighbours about the shelter, and the lockdown-related charges were brought only when it was clear that there was no other justification for holding the detainees. It was clearly an act of discrimination made possible by the presence of the virus, and undoubtedly the pandemic is contributing to a rise in homophobic rhetoric in Uganda, with the LGBTI community being blamed by some for the disease.

I am afraid that the stigmatisation will vanify part of our work of sensibilisation and awareness-raising.

What could be the contribution of the international community, including the Right Livelihood Foundation?

We need the international community and RLF’s assistance to raise awareness on the situation of the LGBTI community and its vulnerability amid the COVID-19 in Uganda.

We don’t want the international community to forget that in Uganda LGBTI rights are neglected and attacked and that the risk is that the emergency undermines even further the efforts of protection.

This crisis highlights the need to ensure decent housing, access to health and medications, and legal assistance of LGBTI suffering from discrimination. International public opinion should be informed and sensitised. Only with international pressure, our fight to get laws and institutions respecting LGBTI rights in Uganda has the hope to succeed.

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