On 22nd November 2018, the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity threatened to shut down the National HIV Prevention Symposium if presentations by key populations representatives were kept on the program. Organized by the Uganda AIDS Commission, the National HIV Prevention Symposium was a meeting that sought to examine the progress and challenges in the prevention of HIV in Uganda. Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) shared in a Facebook post on 22nd November 2018 that Fr Simon Lokodo targeted a presentation themed "Using Rights Evidence action to support HIV prevention among Most At Risk Populations” by the Acting Programs Director of SMUG, Richard Lusimbo and ordered for its cancellation. Other key populations organizations that were denied presentation at the symposium besides SMUG were Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC) and Uganda Harm Reduction Network (UHRN) since their discussions also focused on MSMs, SWs, Transgender Persons and people who use injections and drugs in relation to the National HIV programming. This transpired despite the fact that the government itself approved the agenda of the meeting.

Even though Most At Risk Populations Initiative (MARPI) shared about key populations advocacy in its presentation, the visibility of gender and sexual minorities continues to diminish in Uganda's HIV Prevention strategy due to government interference at state level platforms. Richard Lusimbo commented that, "The continued political interference in the HIV response in Uganda is greatly affecting those who need to be reached like my community. I am greatly saddened that our voices as key populations are being silenced at a critical time when we need to work together to reach everyone." Denis Wamala, a Human Rights Defender who also participated in the symposium expressed in a post on his Facebook page that, "The minister of Ethics and Integrity in Uganda is determined to reduce as much as possible the gains the country has made in the fight against HIV. Even with all the scientific data available, he continues to ensure that key populations are excluded from the National HIV response. His latest action has been to threaten and ensure that the Uganda AIDS Commission excludes KPs from the ongoing National HIV Prevention Symposium. It is self defeating how members of the same government can take opposing actions ending in the escalation of an epidemic which is and can surely be defeated without moral policing..." This is not the first HIV/ AIDS conference that involved most at risk populations to be disrupted by Lokodo this year. According to Daily Monitor (2nd May 2018), he banned the First Annual Conference on Key and Priority Populations conference also organised by the Uganda AIDS Commission in conjunction with Most At Risk Populations Network. He made claims that the conference was organized under the pretext to "promote homosexuality and other dirty things.

The intense pressure by government through its ministries to alienate key populations from the national HIV response continues to gag our voices as marginalized communities. It is a limitation that directly impacts on the fight against the epidemic negatively since we are barely allowed to address our the challenges that we face in this struggle. Such actions only escalate risks factors and consequently increase the rates of new HIV infections among key populations. Besides infringement on the right to health, these restrictions encroach on our rights to assembly, association and expression as key populations. This incident follows earlier reports that the Ministry Of Health was contemplating on scrapping off MSMs and Transgender persons from its data systems in late August this year.

In a joint press statement released on 22nd November 2018, several civil society organizations that included; AWAC, SMUG, UHRN, WONETHA and Transgender Equality Uganda strongly condemned the actions of Fr Lokodo and compelled the government not to undermine evidence based and human rights affirming HIV response. Civil society organizations should relentlessly raise their voices in unison to resist government fueled homophobia that persistently interferes with the fight against the HIV epidemic within the Uganda's key populations.

Photo credit: Sexual Minorities Uganda