The homophobic backlash that followed the Ugandan Women’s March
It started as a conversation among Ugandan feminists on Twitter last summer. Over 42 women had been kidnapped or killed in Uganda since May 2017. Of the women who were murdered, 15 were found with sticks inserted in their vaginas and signs of strangulation, according to a statement from Jeje Odongo, the country’s minister of security.
Ugandan politicians didn’t seem to take these deaths seriously. The Ugandan minister for internal affairs informed legislators that these murders were due to domestic disputes, land conflicts, and, believe it or not, the Illuminati. While addressing the residents of Entebbe, a Ugandan town where a large percentage of the murders happened, Kale Kayihura, who was inspector general of police at the time, blamed the murders on women walking alone at night and/or cheating on their partners. Kayihura advised women to register their relationships with their boyfriends with the police in order to help police investigate their murders should they fall prey to this violent trend.
Many Ugandan feminists took to Twitter to protest these weak, sexist responses and to call for justice and safety using the hashtag #WomensLivesMatterUg. For example, Ugandan feminist Rosebell Kagumire tweeted a list of the women who had been kidnapped and murdered with the caption “We must not allow this to be normal. Stay outraged!”
Soon after the hashtag gained traction, a feminist group called the Women’s Protest Working Group decided this online discussion wasn’t enough. They transformed the Twitter conversation into a march. Medical anthropologist and feminist researcher Dr. Stella Nyanzi, who started the Women’s Protest Working Group, joined forces with feminist lawyer Godiva Akullo, and together they started to ask young feminists, sex workers, and other marginalized groups in Uganda to support their idea to hold an inclusive march.
Despite an always-growing list of restrictions on Ugandans’ rights, the right to peaceful protest is still upheld by the country’s constitution. In order to protest, however, Ugandan law requires a group to get the police’s permission before a public gathering can be held. The Women’s Protest Working Group did plan to request this permission, but five activists associated with the group were arrested on their way to deliver a letter to the inspector general. They were charged with unlawful assembly, and on June 26, just four days before the march was planned, the police not only formally issued a letter rejecting the group’s request to protest, but also released a statement informing the public not to join the march.
After many conversations with the police and internal affairs minister, the organizers of the march were ultimately given the go-ahead to proceed with their march. On June 30, Ugandan women took to the streets of Kampala, the nation’s capital city, in a historic march to fight for the lives of women and children. They were joined by African feminists from Kenya and Ethiopia, male supporters, and other young Ugandans. Marchers dressed in black T-shirts that read “Women’s Lives Matter” and “Police Protect Women,” and carried placards that echoed their screams to “Fuck the Patriarchy.” “We want security now” they chanted loudly, along with “tuli bakazi temutukwata” (“We are women, stop raping us”), “Tukooye” (We are tired).
The day of the march coincided with the last day of Pride Month, and so the Ugandan LGBTQ and sex worker communities were also represented at the march. Ugandan law, in particular the Penal Code Act, categorizes prostitution and homosexuality as crimes against morality, akin to crimes such rape. A person convicted of homosexuality is liable to life imprisonment, and anyone convicted of prostitution is liable to seven years in prison. On the night of the march, a member of the Working Group, Lydia Namubiru, was asked in a television interview why LGBTQ persons were allowed to participate and given a platform to speak. Namubiru calmly responded that she had actually been invited to join the protest group by a sex worker and an openly gay Ugandan. She stated that these marginalized groups are at the forefront of fighting for women’s rights.
Initially, it seemed as though everyone was on board with this inclusion of all marginalized groups in a march meant to address violence against disempowered Ugandans. In fact, the Uganda Police Force — known violators of human rights, including allowing forceful detentions — even marched alongside the queer and sex worker communities at the march, seeming to protect them.
This show of unity did not last long, however. Days after the march, a police deputy spokesperson announced on NBS television that the organizers of the March were being investigated for allowing “unlawful” people to attend a public gathering. Some Ugandans who had previously supported the march withdrew that support after they saw pictures from the march featuring the pride flag and a cheeky placard that read “Mainstreaming Gayism.” Even some who had wanted to fight for anti-violence and justice for women still maintained the common homophobic belief that homosexuality is a “behavior” to which one is “recruited” and other people must therefore be protected from LGBTQ individuals.
This backlash primarily spread online through social media like Twitter and Facebook, especially thanks to prominent Ugandan figures. For example, Ugandan Pentecostal pastor Martin Ssempa — a widely know homophobe who rose to Internet infamy after a video in which he tells an audience that gay men commonly eat human feces was published on YouTube — tweeted to thousands of followers about the march. He claimed that the women who organized the march were using other women’s murders to hoax Ugandans into celebrating LGBTQ people. Many feminists responded and called him out, however, his narrative is now one of the dominant ones among many homophobic Ugandans.
At the end of the day, Ugandan women continue to feel unsafe, and despite the backlash they’ve faced, the Women's Working Group plans to petition the Parliament of Uganda to put pressure on the police to prevent more murders. In the meantime, however, the Ugandan feminist movement should consider what it has accomplished so far a victory.
Despite the backlash that followed it, this march is an achievement given the struggles the broader Ugandan feminist movement has faced when it comes to inclusivity. In recent years, most feminist work has become reliant on big organizations and the donor money they can obtain, which has erased many of the more radical, political feminist principles from the broader Ugandan feminist movement. This march’s intersectional makeup and celebration of difference should therefore be celebrated, as should the Ugandan women’s movement’s turn from basic activism to radical feminism.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International, LGBTQIA
More articles by Tag: Africa, Gender Based Violence, Rape