Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-UGANDA: Gov’t Takes Two Steps Backwards

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Mar 6 2005 (IPS) - Women in Uganda have accused the government of President Yoweri Museveni of using culture to undermine their rights.

Their concern heightened after the government announced a ban on ‘The Vagina Monologues’, a poetic play depicting domestic violence.

One of those critical of the ban, Jackie Wesonga had already bought a ticket to watch the play in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

‘’That was uncalled for, unfair and unconstitutional. How dare they do that at the time women are steadily getting their feet on the ground? That is suppression, taking us ten steps backwards,’’ complained 34-year-old secondary school teacher.

Organised by a group of women’s organisations in Uganda, a production of renowned poetess Eve Ensler, the show was aimed to raise awareness on violence, with women reciting their own stories of rape, incest, domestic battering and genital mutilation.

Proceeds of the play were meant to help the women in the conflict-torn north of the country.

But at a press briefing a week earlier, state minister of information Nsaba-Buturo announced that the play, which was supposed to start running Feb. 19, had been banned ‘because its title would corrupt the morals of society’.

The organisers, Akina Mama Wa Afrika, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), and Uganda Women’s Network said it was the content and not the title of the play that mattered. The Vagina Monologues was meant to educate and inform the society, they said.

‘’This is tantamount to silencing women’s voices and is and has always been the major obstacle in addressing violence against women in a substantive way,’’ the groups said in a joint statement released at a news conference in Kampala Feb. 19.

Activist and former Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Miria Matembe, claimed the ban was a move by the government and the Media Council to silence victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment by men.

‘’If it was men staging it, I think it (the play) would have been allowed to go on,’’ said Matembe, a controversial figure who once proposed that all child defilers be castrated.

Wesonga, a survivor of domestic violence, told IPS: ‘’Women still have a long way to go – a hard battle to fight in this chauvinist world.’’

To be fair, the government of President Museveni has, since 1986, provided a relatively free atmosphere for civil societies to flourish compared to other previous regimes.

When it seized power 19 years ago, one of the most extraordinary sights was the presence of women soldiers fighting side by side with men in the bush, to liberate the country. With them came the likes of legendary female fighters Lieutenant-Colonel Nalweyiso and Captain Zizinga.

President Museveni’s government recognised women’s roles in development. With the appointment of the first vice-President Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, the first deputy Chief Justice Leticia Kigonyogo and other women as cabinet ministers, Museveni became a darling of the women, who gave him votes. In turn, the Ugandan leader announced that a third of all government jobs should be filled by women.

Also, an extra 1.5 points or credit was awarded to all girls to increase the number of females joining the university.

Several women’s organisations opened up, preaching the word of the women’s movement and gospel of emancipation, the first being Action For Development (ACFODE). This organisation, an initiative of women, had been refused by former regime of military ruler Idi Amin to attend a UN Conference in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi in 1985.

In 1978 Amin banned all leading NGOs from operating in Uganda. Today, however, out of the 302 Members of Parliament, 75 are women.

Since Museveni came to power, a number of action plans, including the 1999 National Action Plan for Women and the 1997 National Gender Policy were proclaimed to help women achieve equal opportunities. They outlined the strategic actions Uganda had to implement to boost the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.

Uganda’s 1995 constitution, which is regarded as gender-friendly, provides legal basis for equality between the sexes and affirmative action in favour of women.

‘’Women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men,’’ it says.

But last month’s incident has undermined all those gains.

Activist and first female Dean of Makerere University’s Law faculty, Sylvia Tamale says ‘’women have crossed the imaginary line between the private or domestic sphere and entered into the public sphere.’’ But that is not enough.

She describes many of the government achievements as ‘’top down’’ including the Affirmative Action policy where women were not involved in negotiating the terms. ‘’(The policy) has so many problems. For instance, women representatives are still elected by a male-dominated Electoral College.

‘’That means that their allegiance is to that Electoral College – men,’’ she says. Tamale believes that women leaders wield no real power in Uganda.

‘’We have more women quantitatively in positions of power, but qualitatively nothing has been done to enhance their participation,’’ she says, referring to former vice-President Kazibwe. ‘’Kazibwe was a vice President. But when President Museveni would travel, Kazibwe was not second in power. She was in power without power,’’ Tamale says.

Another area of concern is domestic violence. Wife beating – one of the worse forms of domestic violence, has, for example, been justified in certain circumstances.

According to the Demographic and Health Survey, the latest released by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, more than three-quarters of Uganda’s women agree to wife beating as justified. The reasons include arguing with ones husband, going out without informing ones husband, neglecting ones children and refusing to have sexual relations with ones husband.

‘’This is not surprising because traditional norms teach women to accept, tolerate and even rationalise battery,’’ the report says. ‘’This norm is a great barrier to women’s empowerment with consequences for their health.’’

And this violence cuts across class, education and even tribe. Former vice-President Kazibwe, for example, publicly announced her divorce on grounds of battery by her husband.

To the chagrin of women, the Domestic Relations Bill, a legislation which would address issues like women’s property rights in marriage, rights to negotiate sex on the grounds of health, has never been passed.

‘’(The bill) has been on the shelves for decades and government is dragging its feet. That is a reflection of lack of political will on the part of government to implement the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action,’’ Tamale says.

She says: ‘’Some parts of our cultures have been thrown out because they are convenient for men. But when it comes to women’s rights, men say ‘that is against our culture’.’’

All these debates are academic. It is unlikely that the government will allow the Vagina Monologues to be performed in Uganda.

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