Christmas fear in Uganda

A proposed new law takes state homophobia to new and sinister levels in East Africa.

The Ugandan Speaker of Parliament’s suggestion that the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill would be passed "as a Christmas gift" to Uganda is deeply chilling. Hearing the developments in the news, it feels like we’ve been here before - and remembering the murder of human rights activist David Kato, concerns about where this will go are acutely real.

Friends and colleagues in Uganda, and other countries, face an on-going emergency. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender means discrimination, denial of basic human rights, and criminalisation. It doesn’t go away just because the headlines stop for a while.

The LGBTI community in Uganda is facing harassment and persecution, made worse by hate-speech and the fanning of homophobic flames by those in Uganda and abroad. We know the impact that this has on their physical, sexual and mental health, and it’s unacceptable.

In its current form, the Bill proposes, among other serious penalties, that a parent who refuses to denounce their gay son or lesbian daughter could face up to three years in prison - or a fine of up to roughly twice the average yearly household income for a Ugandan family. And we’ve heard this described as protecting the family. The list goes on – proposing a systematic denial of the most basic rights – to health, housing, education, freedom.

Talking to gay friends in East Africa I’m sometimes taken in by the relaxed way we talk about their security. I’m tempted to believe that she doesn’t mind moving house every few months to keep her profile low; that he’s happy to travel always with a friend and not alone. It can be easy to forget how difficult it is for him to access healthcare, or not to notice when he downplays the end of his last relationship, which ended not because they stopped loving each other, but because the pressure became too much. Or that their family and friends have cut contact.

It’s easy to do all this because the friends I speak with are resilient, courageous. They’re just trying to get on with their lives, and spend very little time complaining about what is often a daily reality. But just as the story doesn’t go away when the news cameras stop rolling, the reality is that this Bill has already taken its toll by legitimizing hatred and discrimination. And while the re-tabling of this Bill is disturbing for what it might bring, I’m disturbed by the menace it has inflicted since it was introduced in 2009.

This reality will continue as long as this Bill languishes in Parliament: because the stigma, harassment and denial of rights that people experience today does not exist in a vacuum. It’s shocking to see MPs, and others holding positions of authority, use this Bill and the media furore to distract attention from critical issues: like the growing concerns over corruption that have resulted in the UK halting its aid to the Ugandan Government.

As long as those with the power to reject the Bill hold back from doing so decisively and completely, they carry part of the responsibility for threats to the safety, security and health of all Ugandans affected.

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the international sexual and reproductive health and rights charity, Interact Worldwide

Protesting outside the Ugandan embassy in London. Source: Getty

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the sexual and reproductive health charity, Interact Worldwide.

 

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.