Online violence against women is real violence

The campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence this year encourages citizens to share the actions they are taking to create a world free from violence towards women. But what is being done about the online misogyny and violence encountered by gender justice activists, individuals, and organisations fighting for women’s rights and creating awareness online? Do our laws, the state, and its citizens consider an action to be gender-based violence only when it results in physical harm, rape, sexual assault, murder, or something severe?

Every day, women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds become victims of online harassment and abuse in the form of trolling, bullying, hacking, cyber pornography, etc. Although there is no nationally representative data on victims of online gender-based violence, according to Police Cyber Support for Women, 8,715 women reported being subjected to hacking, impersonation, and online sexual harassment from January to November 2022.

Read the full op-ed by Countering Backlash partner BRAC BIGD on ‘The Daily Star’ website.

বাংলাদেশের পারিবারিক সহিংসতা আইন বাস্তবায়নে নেতিবাচক প্রতিক্রিয়া (ব্যাকল্যাশ) প্রতিরোধ

নারী ও শিশু নির্যাতন দমন আইন এবং পারিবারিক সহিংসতা (প্রতিরোধ ও সুরক্ষা) আইন ২০১০- এর মতো আইন থাকা সত্ত্বেও বাংলাদেশে পারিবারিক সহিংসতার হার অনেক বেশি। বাংলাদেশ পরিসংখ্যান ব্যুরোর তথ্য অনুযায়ী, প্রতি পাঁচজন নারীর মধ্যে প্রায় তিনজন (৫৭.৭%) তাদের জীবদ্দশায় কোনো না কোনো ধরনের শারীরিক, যৌন বা মানসিক সহিংসতার শিকার হয়েছেন। […]

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Anti-Gender Discourse in Serbian Media

This paper seeks to lay out a critical feminist analysis of anti-gender discourse in 843 media texts published in Serbia from January 1, 2019 to October 31, 2022. A database with the largest coverage of mainstream news was selected. […]

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Marriage equality in India: still miles to go

The queer community in India has been continuously fighting for social equality over the last few decades, given the colonial era laws like Section 377 that criminalised same sex relationships and the Criminal Tribes law that outlawed entire transgender community. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTQ+) groups have struggled in police stations, courtrooms and on the streets to access their rights as equal citizens of the country, given the widespread stigma and discrimination faced daily, not only within homes and neighbourhoods, but within private and state institutions.

The long-standing fight for equal rights

After many challenges and setbacks, the LGBTQ+ community was able to gain a few significant victories. These include landmark cases such as National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India (2014) where the Court held that the state must recognize persons who fall outside the male-female binary as ‘third gender persons’ and that they are entitled to all constitutionally guaranteed rights. This was followed by Justice KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017) in which the court held that the Constitution protects the right of a person to exercise their sexual orientation. The most recent judgement was Navtej Singh Johar and Ors v. Union of India (2018) in which the court held that Section 377 is unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes consensual sexual activities by the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019, the government of India enacted the Transgender Persons (protection of Rights) Act that recognized the right of transgender persons to have a self-perceived gender identity, prohibited discrimination and upheld their rights to residence, healthcare, education and employment.

However, there were still a lot of areas of struggle for the LGBTQ+ community in India, for example, in recognising relationship status for same sex couples. This was met with stiff opposition that led to coercive therapies, forced separation or forced marriages and state custody. In the absence of any legal recognition of long-term LGBTQ+ relationships, surviving partners were disregarded when it came to claiming insurance or employment-related benefits, nominee rights for healthcare or even share of property.

In 2022, several Writ Petitions seeking marriage equality for LGBTQ+ couples were submitted in the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. The key asks were that LGBTQ+  persons should have a “Right to Marry” the person of their choosing, regardless of religion, gender and sexual orientation; and that the Special Marriage Act (1954), which enabled two people of different religions or castes to marry, should also include LGBTQ+ couples by using gender-neutral terminology; likewise, the petitions called for changing the Foreign Marriages Act (1969).  In addition, the petitions also called for changes in the Child Adoption laws and regulations to enable LGBTQ+ couples to adopt children together; one petition asked for the right to ‘chosen families’. The final ask was for preventive and protective measures by district and police authorities to ensure the safety of adult consenting LGBTQ+ couples from the violence they faced from their birth families.

The Supreme Court ruling and its impact

The petitions were all clubbed together and came up before a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court that gave its verdict on the 17th of October 2023 (Supriyo@Supriya Chakrabarty and Ors vs Union of India), denying the claim for marriage equality. Although all five judges accepted that any two people have the right to live and build a life together and that such relationships should be protected from violence and discrimination by the State, they failed to reach a consensus on giving queer couples the status of a legally recognised “civil union”. Three of the judges argued that any legal status to such unions can only be granted through enacted legislation. Disappointingly, all five judges unanimously found that there is no “fundamental right to marry” within the Constitutional framework, a position that is in contradiction with Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that recognizes the right to marry and start a family. The court refused to propose any change to the Special Marriage Act (1954) or Foreign Marriage Act (1969) to make the terms gender-neutral, on the grounds that this would be intruding into the legislative domain.

On the issue of transgender persons, all five judges agreed with the proposition that a transgender man has the right to marry a cisgender woman under current laws; similarly, a transgender woman has the right to marry a cisgender man. A transgender man and a transgender woman can also marry. Intersex persons who identify as a man or a woman and seek to enter into a heterosexual marriage would also have a right to marry.

The minority opinion said the LGBTQ+ community has a fundamental right to form relationships and that the state was obligated to recognise and grant legal status to such unions, so that same-sex couples could avail the material benefits provided under the law. The right to choose a partner was the most important life decision. This right goes to the root of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The minority judgement went ahead to declare that not granting the same rights as those that accrue within marriage to those in civil unions would be violative of the Constitutional promise of no discrimination on the basis of sex. Regarding the Child Adoption issue, the minority opinion was that adoption Regulations discriminate against unmarried couples.

In terms of protection from harassment by families and the police, the Chief Justice of India made very compelling directions to the State to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ couples against discrimination and harassment, especially by the police. Even in the absence of formal marriage rights, this specific instruction for law enforcement agencies could go a long way in easing the problems faced by couples exercising their choice of intimate partner, especially lesbian, bisexual, intersex and trans women.  This is something that needs to be widely spoken about.

What will the future look like for the LGBTQ+ community in India?

Despite not granting new rights to the LGBTQ+ community, the judicial discourse has certainly moved ahead in terms of recognizing the various forms of discrimination acknowledged earlier in NALSA and Navtej Johar.  The Constitution Bench firmly countered the government’s claims that queerness was an alien, urban or elite phenomenon, asserting “pluralistic social fabric” and an “integral part of Indian culture”. All judges acknowledged the inequity and intolerance faced by the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the denial of access to certain benefits and privileges that are available to heterosexual married couples.

In other gains, the State had volunteered to set up a committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for the purpose of defining the scope of entitlement of queer couples who are in unions. They may pass an Act creating civil unions, or a domestic partnership legislation, or perhaps, rather than the Union Government, the State legislatures could take action and enact laws or frameworks. The possibilities are not encouraging, however, given the government has already expressed that same-sex marriages are not “comparable with the Indian family unit concept of a husband, a wife and children”.

The split verdict is a clear setback to the long struggle for equal rights of the LGBTQ+ communities, who remain unsure about how far the conservative forces will take up the directions of the Court to bring about the much-needed changes. It is imperative to continue to discuss and engage with familiar and unfamiliar groups and social institutions. This fight shall continue until no one can deny the rights that are due to the LGBTQ+ community as equal citizens of the country.

Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi

A period of crisis and upheaval is causing serious consequences for the rights of domestic workers. Conditions of economic precarity, work, and income insecurity have long characterised their lives. We are witnessing a clear backlash against domestic workers’ rights. Like other informal women workers who live and work in precarious conditions, they have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and continue to face its devastating impacts.

Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India is sharing their stories in a forthcoming storybook titled ‘Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi’ and launching in August 2023.

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by by Mrinalini Godara

Contextualising backlash against domestic workers in India

One reason for the intensity of this backlash is the systemic inequalities in paid domestic work in India. Although it is one of the largest sectors of work for women in urban areas, paid domestic work has been systematically undervalued and inadequately recognised as work by the state, society, and employers.

There are deep-seated reasons for this, including the highly gendered perception of domestic work as an extension of women’s natural roles, and its performance in familial spaces. Domestic work is also mainly made up of women from marginalised groups, particularly those from migrant communities, Dalit, and Adivasi groups, and +women who have not completed a primary education.

Domestic work is therefore characterised by informality and precarity, with poor working conditions, as well as discrimination based on gender, caste, religion, and migrant status. The vagaries and stresses of urban lives lived on the margins, of the inaccessibility of public services and resources, also encompass a key feature of the living conditions for domestic workers.

Domestic workers telling their stories of backlash

The forthcoming storybook shares glimpses into the lives of domestic workers based in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in India. Launching in August 2023, it includes live-in and live-out domestic workers, who are both young and old, long-term and new migrants, from Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities. The storybook  surfaces and makes visible the everyday forms of caste, religious, and gendered discrimination, violence, and backlash experienced by domestic workers, which took on monstrous proportions during the pandemic.

The storybook illustrates the backlash experienced by domestic workers, highlighting the worrying pushback against their struggles and their rights. This sense of ‘going backwards’ has been expressed by one of the domestic workers in the storybook as ‘10-20 saal peechche chale gaye’ – translated from Hindi to English as ‘we have gone back 10-20 years’.

This is in a sector that has barely seen any gains on their rights as workers. There has been a systematic non-recognition of the rights of domestic workers as workers across the country despite persistent claims made by domestic worker groups. The few exceptions where their rights have been recognised (such as the inclusion of domestic workers in minimum wage notifications, their inclusion as workers for welfare, or the inclusion of households as a workplace under the sexual harassment law, all in just a few Indian states) serve as a reminder for just how limited the gains have been.

This sense of going backwards has taken a range of forms which are highlighted by each of the stories collated in the storybook in the context of the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns. Stories explore the:

  • increased levels of discrimination, as well as high levels of economic vulnerability including increased indebtedness,
  • devastating and widespread loss of livelihoods,
  • decreased wages,
  • food and housing insecurities,
  • increased levels of work for those who remained or have since returned to work,
  • and worsening physical and mental health.

In the wake of these troubling losses, domestic workers have suffered humiliations, indignities, and vilification at the hands of their employers and the state. They have been silenced and rendered powerless. They and domestic worker organisations, such as Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), have experienced further reversals in their collective negotiating power, which has set back their struggles several years. The pandemic served as the ‘moment of revelation’ of the backlash experienced by domestic workers.

We see this in Roopali’s and Sundari’s stories, where their lives have been overwhelmed by insecurities, family illnesses, and severe discrimination.

The storybook painstakingly demonstrates that the backlash experienced by domestic workers is built on a bedrock of systemic discrimination, marginalisation, and myriad ‘microscapes of harm’. Almost all of the stories highlight that the early lives of domestic workers were constrained by disadvantage, insecurity, and hardship. These are stories of early marriages, poor educational opportunities, and very young starts to working life in a context often circumscribed by economic distress.

The spectacle of backlash

Systemic injustices and violence that are rooted in caste and religious notions of ‘purity and pollution’ and experienced in forms such as ‘untouchability’, were heightened during the pandemic. Everyday events of marriage, divorce, illness, the birth of children, death of loved ones, migration, and more, have been experienced as ‘shocks’ by domestic workers. This has been alongside more systemic shocks of forced displacement, climate change, and the pandemic have been experienced in terms of the ‘spectacle of backlash’.

There are now immense challenges faced by domestic worker organisations such as SMKU in contending with this backlash in the context of the reduced negotiating power of domestic workers, as well as shifts in the sector with employers seeking more live-in, ‘full-time’ workers. Even so, as the storybook highlights, the crucial support offered by organisations such as SMKU through immediate relief efforts (such as providing rations or enabling domestic workers to access online benefits) proved invaluable in the critical months when domestic workers were facing perilous food insecurities. Their organising efforts have provided a critical lifeline of solidarity and support for domestic workers, even as they seek to collectively re-strategise their claims making efforts to contend with the backlash.

This story is also available in Hindi.

घरेलू कामगारों के प्रत्यावर्ती अधिकार : दिल्ली में प्रतिघात और प्रतिरोध की कहानियाँ

भारत का वेतनभोगी घरेलू कामगार कार्यक्षेत्र मौजूदा समय में उतार-चड़ाव के दौर से गुजर रहा है, जिससे घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों पर दुष्प्रभाव पड़ रहा है। आर्थिक अनिश्चितता, काम और आमदनी का संकट हमेशा से घरेलू कामगारों के जीवन की कड़वी सच्चाई रही है। लेकिन कोविड-19 महामारी और लॉकडाउन की शुरुआत के तीन साल बाद, इसके विनाशकारी प्रभाव घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों के विरुद्ध स्पष्ट प्रतिक्रिया के रूप में दिखाई दे रहे है। अनिश्चित परिस्थितियों में रहने को मजबूर महिला घरेलू कामगार महामारी व लॉकडाउन के दुष्प्रभावों का ख़ामियाज़ा आज भी भुगत रही है। 

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध प्रतिक्रिया की प्रासंगिकता

इस प्रतिक्रिया की तीव्रता और तीक्ष्णता का एक कारण भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के भुगतान में की गयी व्यवस्थागत असमानताएँ हैं। हालाँकि यह शहरी महिला कामगारों के लिए सबसे बड़े क्षेत्रों में से एक है, लेकिन भुगतान के संदर्भ में घरेलू काम को व्यवस्थित रूप से राज्य, समाज और मालिकों द्वारा नज़रअंदाज़ कर इसे कम महत्व दिया गया है। इसके पीछे की जड़ें काफ़ी गहरी हैं, जिसमें घरेलू काम को लेकर पितृसत्तात्मक जेंडर आधारित दृष्टिकोण है, जो महिलाओं के लिए बतायी गयी उनकी प्राकृतिक भूमिका (घरेलू काम) का महज़ विस्तार और इसका पारिवारिक जगहों पर प्रदर्शन है। साथ ही, घरेलू काम मुख्य रूप से हाशिएबद्ध समुदाय की महिलाओं द्वारा किया जाता है। दलित, आदिवासी और प्राथमिक शिक्षा से पूरी तरह दूर महिलाएँ वृहत स्तर पर इस प्रवासी कार्यबल को बनाती है।

यही वजह है कि अनौपचारिकता और अनिश्चितता घरेलू काम की विशेषता होती है, जिसमें घरेलू कामगारों को जेंडर, जाति, धर्म व प्रवास के आधार पर भेदभाव और बुरे हालातों में काम करने को मजबूर होना पड़ता है। शहरों में सार्वजनिक सेवाओं व संसाधनों तक की पहुँच से दूर अनिश्चितताओं के साथ हाशिए पर बसने को घरेलू कामगार मजबूर है।

अपनी प्रतिक्रियाओं की कहानी बताते घरेलू कामगार

दिल्ली और नेशनल कैपिटल रीजन (एनसीआर) के घरेलू कामगारों की जिंदगियों की झलक पर केंद्रित आगामी स्टोरीबुक ‘जेंडर एट वर्क कंसल्टिंग – इंडिया’ द्वारा तैयार की गयी है। इसका लोकार्पण अगस्त 2023 में किया जाएगा। इस किताब में दलित, आदिवासी, मुस्लिम समुदाय और अन्य समुदाय से घरेलू काम के साथ और इसके बाहर जीने वाले युवा-वृद्ध, लंबे समय से इस काम में लगे हुए और नए प्रवासी के अनुभव शामिल है। ये स्टोरीबुक उन जाति, धर्म और जेंडर आधारित हिंसा और इससे जुड़ी प्रतिक्रियाओं को सामने लाती है, जिसने महामारी के दौरान विकराल रूप ले लिया है।

ये स्टोरीबुक घरेलू कामगारों की प्रतिक्रियाओं के अनुभवों को दर्शाती है और अपने अधिकारों के चिंताजनक दमन और जारी संघर्ष को बयाँ करती है। इस पिछड़ेपन से जारी संघर्ष का अंदाज़ा एक घरेलू कामगार के वक्तव्य से लगाया जा सकता है जब वो कहती है कि, हम दसबीस साल पीछे चले गए

यह एक ऐसा क्षेत्र है, जिसमें काम करने वाले लोगों को उनके अधिकारों के संदर्भ में कोई फ़ायदा नहीं हुआ है। घरेलू कामगारों के लगातार जारी संघर्ष व आवाज़ उठाने के बावजूद देशभर में श्रमिक के रूप में घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों को व्यवस्थित रूप से मान्यता नहीं है। कुछ अपवाद हैं, जहां उनके अधिकारों को मान्यता दी गयी है (जैसे कि कुछ भारतीय राज्यों में न्यूनतम वेतन अधिसूचना में घरेलू कामगारों को शामिल करना, कुछ राज्यों में कल्याण के लिए श्रमिकों के रूप में उन्हें शामिल करना या कार्यस्थल पर यौन-उत्पीड़न के रूप में घरों को शामिल करना) जो काग़ज़ी तो है लेकिन उनके लाभ का असर बेहद सीमित है।

सालों पीछे जाने की इस भावना के रूप ने कई रूप ले लिए हैं, जिन्हें महामारी और लंबे समय तक लॉकडाउन के संदर्भ में स्टोरीबुक में संकलित कहानियों में उजागर किया गया है। ये कहानियाँ उजागर करती है –

  • आजीविका का व्यापक स्तर पर विनाशकारी नुक़सान
  • उनलोगों के काम में दबाव जो काम पर बने रहे या फिर वापस लौट आए
  • वेतन की कमी
  • भेदभाव का बढ़ता स्तर व आर्थिक असुरक्षा से क़र्ज़ का उच्च स्तर
  • भोजन और आवास की असुरक्षा
  • शारीरिक और मानसिक स्वास्थ्य बिगड़ना

इन चिंताजनक नुक़सान के मद्देनज़र, घरेलू कामगारों को अपने मालिक व राज्य से अपमान और तिरस्कार का सामना करना पड़ता है। उन्हें शक्तिहीन बनाकर चुप करवा दिया गया है। उन्हें और घरेलू कामगार संगठन जैसे ‘शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन’ को सामूहिक तौर पर वेतन को लेकर मोलभाव करने और सत्ता को चुनौती देने के आधारों को उलट दिया गया है, जिससे वे सालों पीछे चले गए है। महामारी ने घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध की प्रतिक्रियाओं को ‘प्रकटीकरण का क्षण’ बना दिया है।

हम इसे रूपाली और सुंदरी की कहानी के रूप में देख सकते हैं, जहां उनका जीवन असुरक्षाओं, पारिवारिक बीमारियों और भेदभाव के कड़वे अनुभवों  से घिरा हुआ है।

घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध व्यवस्थागत भेदभाव, हाशिएबद्ध पर बसने को मजबूर और उनकी जिंदगियों में हुए ‘ढ़ेरों नुक़सान के अनुभव‘ को ये स्टोरीबुक सामने लाती है। घरेलू कामगारों की क़रीब सभी कहानियाँ उनकी जिंदगियों की असुरक्षा, संघर्ष और कठिनाइयों को उजागर करती है। ये कहानियाँ बाल विवाह, अशिक्षा और पारिवारिक आर्थिक संकट की वजह से उनके काम करने के संघर्ष को उजागर करती है।

प्रतिक्रियाओं का चश्मा

महामारी के दौरान व्यवस्थागत अन्याय और हिंसा का अनुभव बढ़ा, जिसकी जड़ें जाति और धर्म पर आधारित ‘पवित्रता’ के विचार, प्रदूषण और छुआछूत थी। शादी, तलाक, बीमारी, बच्चे का जन्म, किसी प्रियज़न की मृत्यु या प्रवास जैसी रोज़मर्रा की आम घटनाएँ भी घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एक सदमे के रूप में सामने आयी, जैसे कि अधिक व्यवस्थागत सदमे के तौर पर ज़बरन विस्थापन, जलवायु परिवर्तन और महामारी को उन्होंने लगातार अपने जीवन पर होने वाली ‘प्रतिक्रियाओं के वीभत्स अनुभवों के रूप‘ में जिया है।

अब एसएमकेयू जैसे घरेलू कामगार संगठनों को भारी चुनौतियों का सामना करना पड़ रहा है, जिसमें वे घरेलू कामगारों के मोलभाव की क्षमता के साथ-साथ इस क्षेत्र में बदलाव के संदर्भ में घरेलू कामगारों द्वारा सामना किए जाने वाले विरोध का सामना कर रहे हैं, जिसमें मालिक अब ‘पूर्णकालिक’ कामगारों की माँग कर रहे हैं। इसके बीच ये स्टोरीबुक एसएमकेयू जैसे संगठनों द्वारा महामारी के दौर में राशन की मदद, घरेलू श्रमिकों को ऑनलाइन योजनों के लाभ तक पहुँचाने में सक्षम बनाने जैसे ज़रूरी राहत प्रयासों को भी उज़गार करती है जो घरेलू कामगारों के लिए अमूल्य और इस मुश्किल दौर में उन्हें कुछ राहत दिलाने में मददगार साबित हुई। साथ ही, संगठन ने एक ऐसी जगह तैयार की जहां वे संगठित होकर अपने अधिकारों व संघर्षों के मुद्दे पर एकजुट हो सकें। संगठन के प्रयासों से घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एकजुटता और समर्थन की एक ज़रूरी जीवनरेखा तैयार हुई है, जिससे अब वे सामूहिक रूप से प्रतिक्रियाओं को चुनौती देने व अपनी माँगों को उठाने की रणनीति तैयार कर रहे हैं।

Event: Backlash against gender justice globally: What does it mean for development?

Countering Backlash hosted a panel debate where a panel of international experts will discuss and debate questions for development arising from a swell of anti-gender backlash across the world such as ‘What is it?’, ‘How should development adapt?’. 

Panel:

Co-chairs:

When:

  • 13 June 2023

Watch the recording

Partner Research: Unravelling and countering the backlash against gender justice in Uganda

While it is right and fitting to celebrate International Women Day 2023, it is also important to understand the politics defining how the gains made by women are understood and appreciated, while being insidiously countered at the same time.

There is need for a conversation about a backlash against gender justice that is unravelling in our eyes. More needs to be done to sustain gender justice agendas in the journey ahead. Voices in countering backlash must be intentional, strategic, enduring and needs support from all well-intentioned Ugandans.

Unravelling and countering the backlash against gender justice in Uganda‘, authored by Josephine Ahikire and Amon A. Mwine of Countering Backlash partner the Centre for Basic Research, explores the critical need to interrogate gender backlash and identify ways in which the women’s rights agenda can navigate this backlash.

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Mothers vs Children: Co-opting Child Rights as Gender Backlash

This paper examines how progressive rights frameworks are used as gender backlash tools to suppress feminist activism. The author engages with the events following Rehana Fathima’s political act ‘Body and Politics’, which faced strong backlash in the form of censure through law, and discourse capture. […]

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Countering Online Gender Backlash in Uganda

Advancing the access and use of technology and digital platforms has been embraced by governments and the private and public sectors. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated access to information, finances, education, and health services at a time when physical contact was restricted.

The benefits and potential of digital platforms and technology as a tool to achieve sustainable development and gender equality are vast. But too often they have been used to attack gender advocates, sexual rights activists and feminists, . There have been attacks on legal frameworks, regulation of online spaces, shrinking civic space, counterattacks and violent reactions to the progress of women and marginalised groups. This has led to frequent violent policing of women and feminists who belong to political and public spaces, such as women in leadership positions, and female journalists.

This year, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is thrilled to join the Countering Backlash programme. Our emphasis is to explore the understanding of gender backlash in Uganda’s context, identifying the key drivers of gender backlash and looking at the relationship between online and offline key drivers of gender backlash in Uganda. This will be done with a focus on three thematic areas: feminist organising; civic space; and the regulation of online spaces in Uganda. We join two other organisations from Uganda on Countering Backlash – the Centre for Basic Research and the Refugee Law Project.

WOUGNET is countering gender backlash

There have been numerous attacks on legal frameworks where gender activists, feminist advocates and human rights defenders use social media to conduct online activism. The advancement in the use of technology and digital platforms has also been a tool to share patriarchal narratives and attack these groups and push back against gender equality achievements.

In Uganda, and worldwide, violence such as sexual harassment, stalking, and Non-Consensual Intimate Images (NCII) or ‘revenge porn’, has been used to silence women human rights defenders, and feminist activists. This includes the use of different expressions of violence against feminist activists, and human rights defenders such as the use of words, phrases, and images that depict women as sexualised. They receive demeaning comments on their body size, hair and pregnancy, in ways that are non-sexual but still invasive. The use of the invisible expression of violence manifests in images, messages, and representations of women in media, where feminism is framed as the main cause of women’s problems.

Many religious groups in the public sphere oppose feminist and sexual-equality policies. For example, the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC) – a faith-based ecumenical organisation– in Uganda strongly opposed the comprehensive sexual policy developed by the Ministry of Education and Sports. The church attempted to argue that the policy will teach children to become sexually exploitative. This brought controversies between the Ministry of Health and Education and the Interreligious Council which holds discussions on components around feminism and sexual equality policies.

There has been significant government interference and closure of civic society organisations, mostly targeting women’s rights organisations and sexual rights organisations. For instance, on August 18, 2021, 55 civil society organisations were ordered to halt their operations by Uganda’s NGO Bureau. Most of the organisations affected were vocal and engaged in advocacy work on governance, human rights, and oil and extractives, such as Uganda Women’s Network, Democratic Governance Facility, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) 2019-2020, Chapter Four Uganda, and Sexual Minority Uganda.

WOUGNET’s research will contribute to understanding the context of gender backlash in Uganda, particularly in the policy, civic, and popular space and identify policy areas or strands of focus for the three years. The research will inform the capacity building, several convenings such as quarterly observatory meetings, and awareness-raising campaigns.

WOUGNET’s experience in countering gender backlash

WOUGNET has done extensive research on online gender-based violence in Uganda and continues to advocate on or ‘revenge pornography’, as a form of online gender-based violence commonly experienced in Uganda to reduce backlash on online platforms.  This has led to the acknowledgement of the impact of NCII on women’s rights online in Uganda.

Under the ‘Our Voices, Our Futures’ project, we conducted direct advocacy and lobbying focused on data-related laws and policies (Data Protection and Privacy Act, 2019). This included upcoming legislation and implementation of existing laws related to the NCII, censorship, and network disruptions. We researched the impact of shrinking civic space on feminist organising online, particularly for structurally silenced women to also understand the online discourse. We have generated online and offline creative content that challenges oppressive social norms using digital technologies, held multi-stakeholder convenings, and worked with women-led CSOs in Uganda to effectively participate and advocate for reforms on restrictive legal and regulatory frameworks for freedom of expression and access to information using the women’s rights online education guide.

WOUGNET’s work has delivered significant impacts for women human rights defenders and women’s rights organisations in Uganda. For instance, we have improved the security and advocacy opportunities for female journalists, activists and human rights defenders in Uganda through the established Toll-Free number (0800 200510) which remains an important legal and mental health support service provided to female journalists in Uganda.

What we will be doing on Countering Backlash

WOUGNET’s research will strengthen the understanding of contextual features of gender backlash. We will highlight and showcase key backlash issues and cases in Uganda to build awareness of the effects of gender backlash and misogyny. We will be working closely with women’s rights organisations, civil society, gender justice defenders, human rights activists, academia, policymakers, the media, and more, to change and improve the conditions of vulnerable groups in Uganda and, ultimately, counter backlash.

Event: Agency and activism – experiences of countering backlash against gender justice

Gender-progressive policies around the world are facing significant backlash. Gender justice activists and women’s rights organisations are having to mobilise quickly to counter these attacks.  

The rise of racist, misogynist, populist and neo-nationalist governments, ideas, and political practices in the last decade has only further incited this backlash against gender-progressive policies. This is also leading to an increase in physical, verbal, and digital violence against women, those in the LGBTQI+ community, and human rights defenders. 

This backlash is being challenged, documented, and researched by  Countering Backlash and SuPWR – both hosted by the Institute for Development Studiesin several countries of Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. Research of backlash against gender-equality policy gains in the focus countries include Uganda’s 2019 Sexual Offences Bill, Bangladesh’s Domestic Violence Act, and discrimination against transwomen in Peru’s labour market. They also look at Pakistan’s laws (and non-existent laws) about un-paid work for home-based women workers and India’s Shaheen Bagh protests.  

This event for International Women’s Day 2023 discussed how organisations, informal collectives and individuals are standing up and fighting to protect and further gender-progressive policies. We were joined by those working in the midst of national and regional struggles in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Uganda, and Peru.  

By watching this event, you will understand the nature and source of obstacles that gender justice actors face, what it looks like in policy areas, and how they are attempting to counter this backlash.  

Panel 

  • Maheen Sultan, Senior Fellow of Practice and Head of Gender and Social Development Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)
  • Pragyna Mahpara, Senior Research Associate, BIGD 
  • Amon Mwiine, Researcher, Centre for Basic Research 
  • Zehra Khan, General Secretary, Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) 
  • Deepta Chopra, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
  • Maria Grados Bueno, Post Graduate Researcher, IDS 

Chair 

Event recording

Countering gender backlash in Uganda’s infamous Sexual Offences Bill

Uganda has registered significant steps in promoting gender justice, equality and women’s rights in recent years. Considerable progress has been seen in women’s collective advocacy for strengthening rights in marriage, inheritance of family property and political participation since independence.  

Reforms in the early 1990s provided an opportune moment to institutionalise gender equality in the country’s constitution.  But backlash actors have forced certain egalitarian and inclusive policy reforms to be postponed, watered down, bureaucratically frustrated or outrightly rejected.

Backlash in this context is viewed as pushbacks, resistance, or negative reactions against women’s gains, whether real or imagined. It’s increasingly seen in subtle and organised efforts of pre-emptive moves to prevent progress as well as proactive opposition to progressive agendas.

In this blog, we reflect on our recently published paper that explores one of Uganda’s most infamous policy cases – the 2019 Sexual Offences Bill (SOB). Nicknamed the ‘Son of A Bitch’ bill by opposition forces to discredit it, we trace the legislative process to understand the nature of backlash faced, the actors behind the backlash, those countering the backlash, the methods they used and the lessons for countering threats. Here is what we found.

What is the 2019 Sexual Offences Bill?

The SOB was a private member’s bill, tabled by Hon Monicah Amoding, the then chairperson of Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA). The Bill aimed to consolidate existing pieces of legislation into a specific law on sexual offences for the effectual prevention of sexual violence. The SOB proposed multiple clauses of reform around sexual violence in general and against children, court procedures on handling sexual violence offenders and survivors, and to create a ‘sex offenders register’. The Bill also named pervasive forms of sexual violence including rape, sexual assault, incest, same-sex relations, and more.

Tabled in November 2019 for its first reading, the Bill was debated in May 2021 and passed for presidential assent. But just three months later, President Yoweri Museveni declined to assent to the Bill and referred it back to parliament for further scrutiny and reconsideration. The president cited duplication with already existing laws addressing morality and advised the proponents to work with the Uganda Law Reform Commission – apparently opposed to SOB – to come up with amendments beyond disjointed legislation, essentially putting the Bill on hold.

How did backlash actors attack the Bill?

Most members of the pro-SOB coalitions raised concern about how the feminist principles and interests from the initial framing of the Bill had been watered-down, turning supporters into opponents.

It didn’t take long for backlash against the SOB to manifest through the legislative process and in its content. At a procedural level, the Bill was denied the certificate of financial implication, a mandatory step in the initiation tabling. According to the Mover of the Bill,  women activists later tabled the Bill on extraordinary grounds.  For the activists, delays to certifying the Bill, however subtle and informal they might look, were never innocent. They pointed to a seemingly well-coordinated opposition within the state bureaucracy, as demonstrated by a history of institutional delays and time-wasting through aimless indecision.

Three clauses in the SOB were highly contentious. These related to criminalising sex work, same-sex relations and the question of consent to or during a sexual encounter. Alliances of women in and outside parliament agreed to introduce a clause on consent before and during sexual encounters – requiring individuals to seek consent to a sexual act. This was an attempt to re-introduce the prohibition of marital rape, an issue that was earlier rejected in the Domestic Violence Act 2010. Consent was strongly opposed by mostly male legislators and religious leaders who asked how practical it would be to gather evidence in a matter concerning two adults in a private space.

The second contention related to inserting clauses on sex work  and ‘unnatural’ offences, which became contentious during parliamentary debates. Most members of the pro-SOB coalitions raised concern about how the feminist principles and interests from the initial framing of the Bill had been watered-down, turning supporters into opponents.

Other forms of backlash related to the trivialisation of sexual abuse, especially as many parliamentarians reduced these to humour. For example, they symbolised the consent clause as ‘a plane taking off’ and how the pilot must not be interrupted lest risking crash landing. Legislators’ laughter outweighed their concern over the horrific and pervasive cases of sexual violence, revealing a patriarchal parliamentary culture that ridicules gender equity concerns. Such a parliament cannot be relied upon to push and support social justice in the country.

How can we counter this backlash?

As we show in our newly published paper, women activists encountered and negotiated these forms of resistance. They mapped power centres, identified opposition and engaged with these actors in a deliberate and targeted manner. Pro-SOB actors also used the UWOPA as an influential platform to forge an alliance amongst different actors within and outside parliament.

While the Bill has not yet been passed into law, the outlined process was a moment of revelation in terms of the intense opposition amidst seeming progress on gender equality in Uganda. Some forms of resistance to gender progress are becoming increasingly explicit compared to the early 1990s when gender equality struggles were taking shape. Others are subtle yet severely undercutting the real momentum of gender justice in the country. There generally seems to be extreme panic apparently in response to women’s progress.

As women activists mobilise around women’s individual and private rights within the context of marriage and culture, we are alerted to their collective voice. It is a subversive act that provides possibilities for countering backlash in Uganda and beyond, and deepening the possibilities for substantive gender transformation.

Unravelling Backlash in the Journey of Legislating Sexual Offences in Uganda

This paper interrogates the reality of gender backlash in Uganda by tracing the process of legislating on the 2019 Sexual Offences Bill (SOB). We trace the early beginnings of the Bill by highlighting the motivation that guided the framing of the Bill, the role of individual actors and alliances in pushing for the gender equity reform, and the oppositional forces against the reform. Working with participatory forms of qualitative research methods, the focus on the legislative cycle of the SOB as a policy case aimed to enable us to understand what constitutes backlash, and its drivers and manifestations. […]

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Backlash against student activists during #MeToo in Kolkata, India

Student politics in Kolkata is dominated by left-leaning organisations who look at the world in terms of ‘class struggle’ and claim to be supportive of all democratic movements – including women’s movements and anti-caste struggles. However, some scholars such as Arundhati Roy have critiqued this claim, arguing that social equity does not always extend to caste.

Kolkata’s female students faced caste and gender backlash during the #MeToo movement. This blog explores how this backlash operates against female students in Kolkata’s public universities during the #MeToo movement, from my recently published paper ‘Caste and gender backlash: A study of the #MeToo movement in tertiary education in Kolkata, India‘ . Here is what I found.

#MeToo and Anti-caste

There is a strong anti-caste critique of the #MeToo movement in India argued by Dalit- Bahujan- Adivasi (DBA) feminists. It manifests in gaps of the Indian feminist movement and with female student activists belonging to the two social identities in the universities.

In my recently published paper, I show that politically left-leaning (or ‘Leftist’) male-dominated political organisations in Kolkata’s university campuses use these gaps to their advantage as tools of gender backlash. They uphold established power structures on campuses, silencing and removing both categories of women – DBA and Savarna – from spaces of power and quashing their #MeToo incidents and demands for redressal.

The #MeToo movement led to these institutions strengthening and developing the proper functioning of the universities’ Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the formation of Gender Sensitisation Committees against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), and stronger redressal bodies on campuses and in political organisations.

But even with these committees, my research shows that female students continue to constantly receive backlash when sharing their #MeToo posts on social media, calling out perpetrators in general body meetings and demanding justice.

How caste and class are used as tools of gender backlash

Backlash to gender equality can be viewed through two broad approaches. The first is as an immediate reaction to progressive change made or demanded by women. The second is inherent discrimination in power structures that affect women’s experiences of backlash differently. My research uses both of these approaches to explore gender backlash.

Two clear themes emerged from my interviews with female student activists belonging to both DBA and Savarna groups. These were the centrality of power and misogyny, and how they operate together to create gender backlash. All the respondents said that the powerful positions in the Leftist political organisations on campuses were held by Savarna men, although the organisations were by principle pro-working class. Issues of sexual harassment and gender sensitisation were most often avoided by bringing up the caste and class of female party members whenever men felt that their power was being challenged.

Respondents described how the leaders of political parties they worked in insisted that they were elite middle-class women and that issues such as calling out perpetrators of sexual harassment online and in general body meetings were middle-class issues and actually did nothing for DBA women.

When I described my experience with the harasser, he confidently dismissed the allegation and retorted with accusing me and other Savarna female members of planning to form a group to falsely accuse men in the party of sexual harassment, malign the party’s image and beat up the men. He kept repeating that urban elite feminists like us do nothing constructive for the women’s movement and marginalised women.

This type of backlash silenced Savarna feminists and did nothing to serve the interests of DBA feminists on campuses. It ultimately removed the crucial need to address sexual harassment from their political activities.

Respondents repeatedly emphasised that Leftist organisations in the universities tend to integrate caste within class, and target their position in society to reverse any attempt to address critical issues like sexual harassment. Being upper caste (and, according to the male leaders, automatically upper class), the groups first need to address the issues of the working class and then gender.

Intimidation through threats of physical and sexual violence and marginalisation using the position of caste and class in society creates effective backlash against upper-caste female students, ultimately silencing them and stalling any progressive change. Dalit respondents mentioned that Savarna women are pitted against Dalit women strategically by Savarna male leaders. Similarly, Savarna women are pitted against Savarna women within the party which is also a subtle form of backlash.

Bridging the rift

The purpose of this study using conventional and alternate conceptual approaches to backlash was to reveal that they can be understood in unison in this case and might also be relevant in understanding and further analysing backlash.

The intersection of gender identity and the position of caste and class in society plays a crucial role in generating gender backlash. Feminist movements must include an analysis of caste and class to understand the needs and aspirations of women belonging to DBA and upper-caste backgrounds.  Anti-caste and anti-class movements need to examine patriarchy and sexism[19] [20]  within their movements.

Both movements should focus on the actual life situations and experiences of women. Concepts of gender backlash that focus on power, and why and how backlash occurs, should also look at the intersection of gender identity and the position of caste and class in society to better understand different groups’ experiences.  Concepts of backlash focusing on intersectionality should look at how power is exercised to generate gender backlash. This combined understanding will contribute to strategies for dealing with backlash and make efforts to mitigate it through activism.

We must bridge the rift between Dalit and Savarna feminists and be inclusive. Only then can the valid narratives emerging within the two different groups of feminists which generate gender backlash come to a stop.

Grasping Patriarchal Backlash: A Brief for Smarter Countermoves

Nearly three decades ago the UN World Conference on Women at Beijing appeared to be uniting the international community around the most progressive platform for women’s rights in history. Instead of steady advancement, we have seen uneven progress, backsliding, co-option, and a recent rising tide of patriarchal backlash. […]

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