The struggle for gender justice in Uganda

There are different critical junctures in Uganda’s history from which debates on gender justice, equality and women’s rights can be traced. One of these significant moments is the “guerrilla bush war” led by Yoweri Museveni between 1981-85. Many women participated in this war on different fronts which ultimately brought about a new regime in 1986.

Inspired by women’s participation in the liberation war and international norms towards women’s rights, the post-war programming introduced practical steps towards promoting gender equality. These included creating “mandatory seats for women in all levels of the grassroots people’s resistance councils and the National Legislative Council (NRC) – the interim national legislature” in 1989, creating a ministry responsible for women’s affairs among other pro-women rights initiative. Feminist scholars argue that “women [often gain] greater visibility during and after war because institutional changes open up opportunities for them to demand women’s rights’ and representation in the context of peace talks, constitutional changes, truth and reconciliation processes and electoral reforms, …”

Institutional changes open up opportunities … to demand women’s rights’ and representation in the context of peace talks, constitutional changes, truth and reconciliation processes and electoral reforms,”

Post-war recovery ushered in a new political dispensation and opened avenues for gender equity reforms e.g. constitutional reforms of 1989-1995 in which women activists and women’s rights organisations (WROs) participated in, a new gender sensitive constitution, resurgence of autonomous WROs. The 1995 constitution particularly named women as citizens of an equal worth with men. The constitution committed the state to protect women and their rights, provided affirmative action measures in favour groups marginalised on the basis of gender, age, disability, and prohibited laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status.

Covert resistance to implementing gender equality

While, these permissive moments created a greater momentum and a sense of optimism in promotion of gender justice, equality and women’s rights, the institutionalisation of gender equality generated diverse forms of resistance especially as WROs moved to translate constitutional promises into reality.

Three years after a gender sensitive constitution came into effect; the WROs registered a loss in pursuit of what came to be known as the Spousal Co-ownership “lost clause” within the 1998 Land Act. Miriam Matembe a women’s rights activist and legislator, who spearheaded mobilisation for the reform calling for wives to co-own property with their husbands – described the loss as “a moment of truth”. This is because women’s lobby realised that the great optimism derived from the formal constitution was not enough to deliver such a far-reaching gender equity change as women co-owning land with their spouses in a marriage arrangement. The experience revealed a systematic bureaucratic resistance to the translation of the constitutional provisions on women’s rights into action.

These covert forms of state resistance influenced future WROs ways of mobilising for gender change. Ten years after the lost clause, WROs drew on formal and informal networks, formed coalitions with government departments, male legislators, religious leaders and traditional leaders to promote a law on domestic violence out of the long-resisted Domestic Relations bill. Drawing on the experiences of backlash from the past, WROs mapped existing forms of resistance to gender equality and negotiated directly with key actors to enable passage of reforms.

We are looking to understand which WROs strategic manoeuvres led to the framing and passage of Domestic Violence Bill (2009) along with the prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation in 2009. We are also focusing on a class-related policy – Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP) – government – top-down programme. UWEP was introduced in 2015 under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to strengthen the capacity of Women entrepreneurs, provide affordable credit to women groups for enterprise development and spur local economic development.

Contemporary backlashes

A closer analysis of these cases reveals differences in interests and ideas that motivated these policy reforms, as well as varying forms of backlash against them. Notably, strategic negotiations in framing, debates, passage and implementation of gender equality and women’s rights reforms are not without effect. Certain compromises in law reform processes are seen to water down some of the feminist provisions, as actors struggle to make laws “acceptable” to opposition e.g. men, powerful political elites, traditional and religious leaders. A case in point is the fact that the Domestic Violence bill was stripped of provisions on marital rape. There are cases of active stalling of gender reforms, with some reform programmes featuring as government’s unfunded priorities.

In communities where reforms impact on men and women’s everyday lives, there are social tensions emerging from disrupted gender division of labour e.g. in cases where women entrepreneur groups are seen as a threat to men’s social and economic power in households. Other backlashes manifest in form of what Sylvia Tamale has characterised as the conceptual dilemma in feminist conversations that constructs ‘rights’ and ‘culture’ as opposed to each other.

Tamale argues, “[m]ainstream feminists often present the two concepts of “culture” and “rights” as distinct, invariably opposed and antagonistic. Citing the passage of the FGM law, Tamale argues that when government attempted to outlaw the practice, omitting possibilities to harness positive cultural attributes, it created a severe backlash by pushing it underground with vigilante groups consisting of youthful males hunting down “defectors” and forcibly subjecting them to the knife.

These backlashes (and perhaps many other forms) are often exacerbated by neoliberal and neo-conservative politics with a strong emphasis on individual rights, and privileging economic gains, which, in some cases influences the nature of WROs. Some WROs are motivated by personal economic gains rather than transforming societies experiencing gender inequalities. Coupled with increasing government tight control of nongovernmental organisations work, these global and national contexts continue to depoliticise the women’s movement. We are here to reclaim gender justice.

Covid-19 and new struggles over gender and social justice

Backlash against gender and social justice was well underway prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, as Naomi Klein has demonstrated, such crises provide fertile ground for the ‘exceptional politics’ required to dust off and push through illiberal ideas, allowing particular actors to concentrate power and profit from disaster.

The chaos brought about by any global shock can produce a perfect storm allowing for the suspension of democratic norms, deepening of inequalities and heightened fear and polarisation ripe for exploitation. These opportunities have already been recognised and seized by neoconservative projects and populist leaders in the Covid-19 moment. In turn, the crisis triggered by the pandemic appears to be producing — at a whole new level — a heady mix of fear, distraction, restrictions and volatility which seems set to further entrench backlash against struggles for gender and social justice.

Reproductive Rights

Women’s autonomy over their lives and bodies has been consistently denied or threatened through a myriad of attacks on reproductive rights in the ongoing backlash. These rights are further eroded in the context of Covid-19 through the closure of abortion clinics and the designation of abortion as ‘non-essential’, along with supply chain disruptions and diversion of staff and equipment from other Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services. This is expected to have dire consequences with regard to maternal and newborn deaths, unsafe abortions, unplanned and unsafe pregnancies, particularly among marginalised communities.

Domestic Violence

While the ‘necropolitics’ of Covid-19 visibly determine which socioeconomic and ethnic groups are disproportionately killed by the virus, the fallout of lockdowns has also precipitated increases in domestic violence and femicide worldwide. Reports of domestic violence have increased upwards of 25 per cent (pdf) in countries with reporting systems in place, even doubling in some cases. In Bogota, the city mayor stated that reports of violence against women surged 225 per cent in the first week of lockdown, while other crime statistics dropped.

The UN Population Fund asserts that the pandemic is likely to undermine efforts to end gender-based violence, increasing the incidence of violence, while placing already under-resourced prevention and protection efforts under greater strain (pdf). Women’s right to live free from violence, indeed the right to live at all, is seemingly even more viscerally under threat while governmentally enforced to “stay safe, stay home”.

Unpaid Care

Along with enforced restrictions to the home, increased demand for unpaid care — of children and elderly relatives — is deepening pre-existing inequalities in the gendered division of labour. Women were already performing three times as much unpaid care work than men prior to the Covid-19 outbreak (pdf), yet current containment measures — such as school closures — have heightened this burden for women and girls, in particular, both inside and outside of the home (pdf).

The consequences of the pandemic threaten to further impede girls education (pdf) and women’s participation in the paid economy worldwide, jeopardising efforts toward gender and economic equality in the long-term, while reinforcing the traditional structure of the household (in the ‘male breadwinner; female caregiver’ mould).

‘Emergency Powers’ and Authoritarian Rule

The global shock of Covid-19 has exacerbated other key features of backlash, including rising ethnonationalism and authoritarianism, and the hypermasculine performances of the populist figureheads leading the growing number of ‘illiberal democracies’ worldwide. State-led enforcement of lockdowns have been pursued through emergency powers, providing opportunities for stricter authoritarian rule, arbitrary arrests and/or brutal crackdowns, predominantly waged against marginalised minorities, including in IndiaKenyaHungary, the PhilippinesUganda and Paraguay.

(Mis-)information, (fake) news and ‘science’ have also been weaponised, from descriptions of coronavirus as a ‘little flu’ and left-wing conspiracy to undermine President Bolsanaro’s legitimacy in Brazil to clampdowns on alleged “disinformation” and “fake news” in Russia and the Philippines. India’s health ministry spoke of “corona Jihad” and blamed an Islamic seminary for spreading the virus, sparking yet more violence against Muslims from Hindu-nationalist quarters. This came just weeks after state-sanctioned deadly attacks in a Muslim neighbourhood of Delhi, and in a context of broader legislative religious discrimination — peaceful protest of which has recently led to the arrest of two IDS alumni.

In the Philippines, human rights advocates have highlighted President Duterte’s “chilling disregard for the poor and the persecuted” in the response to the crisis, and fear that emergency powers will facilitate arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists and environmental defenders charged with spreading “false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis.”

In India, migrant workers were beaten and humiliated by police on their mass exodus out of cities back to their villages, while migrants were allegedly robbed, beaten and spray-painted with red crosses on their heads by Croatian police officers claiming that the treatment was the “cure against coronavirus” – a story denied by the Croatian authorities. President Trump banned all immigration to the US, with no details of timing, scope or legal basis, while migrant and refugee camps have been turned into ‘virtual prisons’ in a number of other settings, including Qatar, Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.

On May 19th, the Hungarian government passed a law which makes it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender, placing them at greater risk of harassment, discrimination, and violence when daily using their identity documents. In a context of acute discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals and communities, Human Rights Watch writes that this new legislation “comes at a time when the government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to grab unlimited power and is using parliament to rubber-stamp problematic non-public health related bills, like this one.”

Fuel to the Fire

These dynamics – of populism and militant ethnonationalism, rollbacks in reproductive rights, along with reinforced gendered violence, discrimination against LGBTQI+ people and divisions of labour – have long functioned to undermine, erode and inhibit progress on gender and social justice. However, they have gathered increasing force and legitimacy in recent years.

The global shock precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have added fuel to the fire enveloping and diminishing human rights, civic space and gender justice, while also providing a smokescreen for the further erosion of democratic norms, entrenchment of inequalities and scapegoating of the ethnic and gendered other.

Countering Backlash

Yet, all of this is happening in plain sight, and new opportunities, forms of mobilisation and strategies in struggles for gender justice and human rights are likely to also evolve; opportunities, strategies and struggles which need support. IDS has recently embarked on a multi-country research and capacity-strengthening programme entitled ‘Countering Backlash: Reclaiming Gender Justice’, with partners in Uganda, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Brazil and Lebanon. While a global pandemic did not feature in the initial conceptualisation of the programme, the implications of Covid-19 on dynamics of backlash are undeniable.

It is only through the collaborative understanding of patriarchal backlash that we can tackle it, and identify opportunities for gender and social justice worldwide. In order to support those countering backlash in this moment of rupture, we must and will maintain a critical eye on dynamics of backlash as they unfold through the pandemic.

Reclaiming gender justice: we must act now to counter backlash threatening women’s rights globally

In the past decade we’ve seen some significant steps forward in the fight for women’s rights and gender equality, from the #MeToo movement that has emboldened more women to speak out against misogynistic abuse, to new domestic violence laws passed to protect women in India and Bangladesh. However, we are now increasingly witnessing a rising tide of patriarchal backlash against that progress. Around the world women’s rights are at risk of being rolled back and those fighting for them are at risk of violent attacks online and off.

In 2017, Russia passed a new law that decriminalised the first instance of domestic violence. The Trump administration brought into being the global gag rule that blocks all US assistance to foreign NGOs that use their own funds to provide abortion services, counselling and referrals or advocates for reproductive rights. Dismantling of institutions that work on gender equality has been a key feature. Brazil has witnessed change to social welfare policies that negatively affect poor women, and abolished the Ministries of Racial Equality, Human Rights and Women. Worldwide, there is a rise in incidence of attacks on-line against female politicians, both sexualised abuse and other kinds of abuse and threats.

First, we must understand it

To counter this growing backlash, I believe that first we need to fully understand it. Is it coordinated, how does it manifest, are there common tactics being used by those fighting against equality in different countries? These are questions that are being addressed in new research taking place with eleven partner organisations across six countries in Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and East Africa.

But understanding it is only one part of the process that needs to happen. If we are to hope to more effectively counter backlash in its many forms, we also need to find allies, learn from each other, mobilise, build alliances and device savvy strategies together in areas of activism, policy and the role of men as advocates.

It is so important to learn from and understand what is happening in different countries. Much of the research and evidence on backlash against women’s rights and gender equality only covers US, Eastern Europe and the UK. Finding out how this issue is really affecting countries in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East is crucial to international development, as a whole, and to getting anywhere close to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Learning from India, Bangladesh and Uganda

For example, we can learn from the resistance to new laws in India and Bangladesh to tackle domestic violence, where backlash manifested itself in challenges to the details of the law. Where in general there was wide acceptance that domestic violence was wrong, but when laws were being formed individual clauses were changed, for example for the laws to only apply to married couples and left out cohabiting couples or gay relationships.

In Uganda, the resistance to new women’s rights laws was similarly framed in a way that could be classified under the guise of ‘family values’. The proposals received push back from the church due to concerns that the law would reduce power for men, give too much power to women and upset the traditional family dynamic. In order to counter this dynamic, the policy coalition on domestic violence had to frame the issue to show that domestic violence affected men too. They also framed domestic violence as a development concern as it affected the health, labour power and well-being of women. To achieve change the policy coalition and the female MPs actively pursued male MPs to bring them on board as allies.

Building international coalitions and alliances

Those pushing back against women’s rights are forming coalitions so in order to counter this backlash so must we. At an international level, for example, the US, Russia, catholic and Muslim majority countries banded together as far back as 1995 to remove progressive language and provisions agreed upon at the UN’s women conference in Beijing.

We should try not to work in silos. The alliances can and should be wide-ranging, internationally wide-reaching and across activist groups, academia, lawyers, NGOs and liberal-minded local and national politicians. In many cases the backlash against gender equality can also be similar to backlash against LGBTQ rights or minority rights and different rights organisations have opportunities to support and back each other though formal networks and informal support for one another.

Much of this backlash is coupled with the shrinking of civic spaces, where in many countries around the world governments are making it more difficult for civil society organisations and rights groups to speak out or operate openly. This makes it even more important to build alliances to share tactics that work and support and encourage to those facing increased levels of oppression.

We all need to join the battle

With the one in three women affected by gender-based violence at some point in their lifetime and a recent World Bank report showing that on average women only have 75 percent of the legal rights afforded to men, there is much work to do and we can’t afford to lose the hard-fought gains that have been made.

As a researcher I believe it is vital for those working in this field to be more closely aligned with activists and build partnerships with change-makers on the ground. In the fight for women’s rights we all need to join the battle.