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.