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.