As the legal adviser and one of the petitioners for the case that struck down Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, I have more experience than most how challenging it can be to have a level-headed debate about laws regarding sex and sexuality in a conservative society.
I opposed the Anti-Homosexuality Act from the moment it was first proposed. As a lawyer and Member of the Ugandan Parliament I could clearly see this legislation was against human rights and international law. It is obvious that many of my parliamentary colleagues felt similarly. The vast majority of members never took part in any debate in the chamber on this issue, nor voted on it. In a traditionalist country, this should rightly be seen as tantamount to opposition.
Yet if more had taken part they might have seen that the movers of the bill made a dangerously mistaken link between a person being gay and pedophilia. Indeed, many fair-minded people who wanted to make clear Uganda’s disgust for increasing levels of child sex abuse by foreigners were purposely persuaded that these same abusers were homosexuals.
What is without doubt is that there is a serious child sex tourist problem affecting Africa, and that many of the abusers come from the West. The Asian child sex trade has been well documented, but the African trade has grown to the point where government and NGO estimates suggest there are as many as 18,000 child sex workers in Uganda alone. The Australian anti-abuse charity Childwise estimates that some quarter of a million people travel abroad each year to have sex with minors. In the case of one of America’s closest allies — Britain — only this year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child warned: “There are continued reports that United Kingdom citizens, including some convicted sex offenders, set up charities or travel abroad, where they sexually abuse children”.
Yet it is a sad fact that much of the propaganda inflaming public opinion in Uganda to support the act had itself come from the West, and particularly from the U.S. Scott Lively, an American evangelical preacher who has long insisted that homosexuality is directly linked to child sexual abuse and that homosexuals are always “looking to recruit youth into their ranks” was a key cheerleader for the law. Working closely with small but determined group of likeminded extremists within Uganda they have managed to bring forward legislation that knowingly undermines the rights of homosexuals by making this community a scapegoat for child abuse committed by others. He and his supporters have always wanted Ugandans to believe those peacefully campaigning for gay rights are in fact campaigning for, and engaging in, sex with minors. It is through their relentless and well-funded movement that what originally started as a discussion about tackling those who abused children was mutated into something entitled the “Anti-Homosexuality Act.”
It is under this legislation, purposely confused by those with an agenda, that we have a situation where sex education in schools that may include teachers answering questions on homosexuality – as is typical in many countries – has not only be banned but conflagrated as a wider attack on the rights of gay support groups to campaign and express their views through public meetings.
All the while the real crisis of child sexual abuse has been growing largely unchecked. That is not to say that the Ugandan government has done nothing to combat it: Anti trafficking legislation has been passed, and a National Plan of Action drawn up. But for all the government’s success in other areas of human development, such as meeting most of its Millennium Development Goal commitments, we remain a poor country without the capacity to combat this alone.
In this light the West’s reaction to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act appears at least partially misplaced. I believe there was in some quarters even good intent from some of those supporting the Act: Some genuinely believed the law would help end child sexual abuse. Because there had been no strong counter debate explaining that homosexuality has no more connection with child abuse than heterosexuality, those seeking to use the law as an attack on gay rights where able to hijack the debate.
So instead of cutting aid programs and lecturing Uganda’s leaders, Western countries should be trying to tackle the underlying currents that have driven public and parliamentary support for the legislation.
A key way to achieve this would be by ensuring there is greater cooperation between Uganda and other African countries and Western authorities to track and arrest sex abusers who target children in the region. We need support for specialized police child protection units and public education targeting tourists as well as locals on the real threat to children. Once the real scandal of the child sex trade is exposed and tackled, then the politicians of Uganda will be able to see this anti-gay blame game is both wrong and mistaken, and with it the threat of more legislation will subside.