In Uganda, harassment conviction brings backlash
“I love you. Nothing is going to stop me. Nobody is going to stop me. Not even you.” — Brian Isiko
In November of 2017, Ugandan Member of Parliament Sylvia Rwabogo began receiving texts professing love from a 25-year-old student, Brian Isiko. Her attempts to dissuade him from contacting her, including blocking him, did not yield any fruit. Her nightmare did not end until June 2018, when she finally involved the police and he was apprehended by authorities.
But even in police custody, Isiko continued sending text messages to Rwabogo. During the court proceedings she wept in court while Isiko smiled.
“Imagine you are interfacing with someone in court who has harassed you for eight whole months, and he was busy smiling through my fear,” Rwabogo confided in an interview with activist Rosebell Kagumire for a Ugandan women’s YouTube channel, Black No Sugar.
“The accused kept laughing throughout the session,” said the presiding judge, Gladys Kamasanyu. “This is a demeanor of a man who is not remorseful.”
Last month Kamasanyu convicted Isiko on counts of cyber harassment and offensive communication as provided for in Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act. The law, passed in 2011, calls for a fine or imprisonment for anyone who “willfully, maliciously and repeatedly uses electronic communication to harass another person and makes a threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety.” Until now, it has mostly been used in cases of financial crimes or to stifle freedom of expression against the government. Using the law for the successful prosecution of a man for harassing a woman has been unheard of until now, and Rwabogo has been widely publicly condemned by male critics who insist this kind of harassment is harmless, even complimentary. In fact, in the aftermath of Isiko’s conviction, Rwabogo has faced public condemnation for what is viewed as persecution of a young man innocent only of the crime of love.
“At one point, I didn’t know what to do,” Rwabogo said. “Should I go home? Should I go to a hotel? Maybe he’s waiting for me outside the gate. I started making calls in advance for the gate to be opened and got private security. I locked doors in broad daylight. These were not love messages. This was obsession, and obsession can lead to death.”
The judge sentenced Isiko to two years in prison in order to set a precedent, she said, for what she referred to as the commonplace harassment of women in Uganda. In delivering her verdict, Kamasanyu said society has groomed men to always demean and disrespect women, and that is why Isiko continued to bother Rwabwogo even after she blocked his calls. She said considering the current security situation in the country, a custodial sentence would be the best punishment, as there is need to deter men who find it normal to harass women.
Even though Uganda’s penal code provides for punitive measures against street harassment, ordinary women deal with it every day, and men are free to harass women on the street with impunity. I have been accused of inviting street harassment after a police officer I approached for help told me my clothes made me “ask for it,” and he supported the men.
The public support for perpetrators and criticism of victims has precedent in past statements from male members of parliament.
“I have talked to the IGP and the police in Kampala to see that if a woman is raped they look at how she was dressed. Most women currently dress poorly, especially the youth. If she is dressed poorly and is raped, no one should be arrested.” — former Youth Minister Ronald Kibuule, 2013
“If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her.” — Minister for Ethics and Integrity Sinom Lokodo, 2013
“As a man you need to discipline your wife. You need to touch her a bit, tackle and beat her somehow to streamline her.” — Onesmus Twinamasiko, Bugangaize East Member of Parliament, 2018
In this current case, Member of Parliament Odonga Otto has publicly stated that 41-year-old Rwabogo is “even lucky to get admirers.”
“Why should you arrest someone because they love you?” he told a Ugandan publication, Insider, on July 17. ”We all have feelings and we express them in different ways.”
These reactions are in alignment with those of many men on social media, which has been rife with men abusing Rwabogo for persecuting a “mere 25-year-old boy” and calling for his release:
“Every woman has the right to reject expressions of love: in a mature and just way!”
“She is an ugly hearted twat walking around with an under employed uterus while fattening her gluteaus maximus on our taxes.”
“Shame on all women who use such cases for grandstanding, posturing and using a victim’s case as a soap box for their own benefits.”
“How are you sure they didn’t date? And that it was revenge for a love story gone sour?”
“That judge being female had her own woman emancipation issues. This dude should appeal.”
One prominent advocate for Isiko is a pastor, Martin Ssempa, who accuses Rwabogo of using her privilege and power to pursue justice the “wrong way.” Ssempa believes that Isiko has been sentenced too harshly and is using his platform and influence to seek leniency for him. “There is no reason Isiko should go to jail,” he said. “If you read the text messages, he kept saying, ‘I’m sorry. My crime is that love I this person and even if I’m jailed, my crime is love and I will stop sending messages.’”
Rwabogo’s condemnation from so many members of the public and their support for Isiko is a copy and paste of the normality and acceptance of violence against women offline as well as online. Between May and September 2017, 23 women were found brutally murdered, and no suspects were apprehended. Today, unresolved kidnappings of women are on the rise with women living in daily fear of their lives. On June 30, activists marched on the streets of Kampala (despite initial refusal of permission by the police) to call for authorities to make women’s lives matter. Under the umbrella of the Women’s Protest Working Group (WPG), they demanded justice for victims and called for security and protection for all women and children in Uganda.
Lawyer and human rights activist Patience Akumu believes the verdict against Isiko to be a fair one, in light of Uganda’s current rash of violence against women.
“I think it’s time to tell Ugandan men that it is not normal to abuse women. They abuse us every day on the streets and in our homes and we are quiet about it. Men are not used to women being human, being treated with dignity. They are appalled, but our fight for our dignity and rights has only begun, and we shall not stop. And these men have to get used to women asserting their humanity.”
Akumu believes the sentence may be a deterrent, but “the most important thing is to raise our children, the boys, to stop seeing women as objects but rather as humans who deserve the same rights, opportunities, and respect as men. I hope this is not too late.”
Rwabogo has not been deterred by the public outrage against her for challenging the right of men to ignore a woman’s consent.
“I am so grateful to the women and men on and off social media who are supporting me because these are the people fighting for our daughters tomorrow,” she told Rosebell Kagumire. “Even if I have been used as a sacrificial lamb for the public, I know that tomorrow will be a safer place for our daughters and all women.”
More articles by Category: International, Online harassment, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexual harassment, Africa