Event: How is backlash weakening institutional contexts for gender justice globally?

Gender backlash is continually gaining momentum across the globe, and social and political institutions and policies are being dismantled. Gender justice activists and women’s rights organisations are having to mobilise quickly to counter these attacks.

With speakers from Bangladesh, Uganda, Lebanon, Serbia and India, in this official NGO CSW68 event we ask, ‘how is gender backlash weakening institutional contexts for gender justice globally?’ Speakers will discuss: stalling and lack of implementation of the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act (2010) in Bangladesh; the infiltration of conservative religious and political actors in democratic institutions in the context of Serbia and neighbouring countries; anti-feminist backlash as institutional by default in Lebanon; and the legislative weakening of institutional contexts in Uganda, examining Acts which exert control over Civil Society Organisations.

When

  • 11 March 2024
  • 08:30 – 10:00 EST // 13:30 – 15:00 UK Time

Where

  • Online – Zoom

Speakers

  • Pragyna Mahpara, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)
  • Sandra Aceng, Executive Director, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
  • Nay El Rahi, Activist and Researcher, Arab Institute for Women (AIW)
  • Nađa Bobičić, Researcher, Center for Women’s Studies Belgrade (CWS)
  • Santosh Kumar Giri, Director, Kolkata Rista
  • Jerker Edström, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Chair

  • Chloe Skinner, Research Fellow, IDS

Event: Counting the cost: funding flows, gender backlash and counter backlash

Major political and social shifts are stifling the possibility of gender justice across the world. Analysing this backlash as operating on global, regional and local scales in this webinar, we ask, where is the money?

While predominant anti-gender backlash movements and actors appear well financed, those countering backlash face significant financial challenges, heightened in the context of rising authoritarianism and shrinking civic space.

In this event, we were joined by leading experts and partners from Countering Backlash and beyond. Isabel Marler from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) presented a mapping of sources of funding for anti-rights actors, and interrogate what is effective in countering anti-rights trends, while Lisa VeneKlasen (Independent Strategist, Founder and Former Executive Director of JASS), explored ‘where is philanthropy on anti-gender backlash’? Turning to national restrictions, Sudarsana Kundu and Arundhati Sridhar from our partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India focused on the impacts of funding laws for women’s rights organising in India.

When

  • 12 December 2023
  • 13:00 – 14:30 UK time

Speakers

  • Lisa VeneKlassen, Independent Strategist, Founder and Former Executive Director of JASS (Just Associates)
  • Isabel Marler, Lead, Advancing Universal Rights and Justice, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
  • Sudarsana Kundu, Executive Director, Gender at Work Consulting – India
  • Arundhati Sridhar, Gender at Work Consulting – India

Discussant

Chair

Watch the recording

Countering gender backlash in Africa and Asia

Countering Backlash partner, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), recently participated in the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF) in Nairobi, Kenya and RightsCon in Costa Rica. During the two events, WOUGNET led discussions on the challenges faced by women’s rights advocates and the broader gender justice movement in the face of increasing online gender-based violence and shrinking civic space.  

Joined by Countering Backlash partners BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD – Bangladesh) and NEIM (Brazil), along with a representative from the Ugandan police force, sessions highlighted the emergence of new forces and alliances that are actively pushing back against the progress made in achieving gender equality and justice, both globally and in Africa.

Participants discussed the various manifestations of gender backlash, such as the formulation of restrictive laws and legal frameworks, attacks on human rights and defenders, and the use of digital technology to propagate misogynist narratives.

WOUGNET spoke about the continuous attacks on gender activists and human rights defenders in Uganda, where laws and policies are enacted that restrict their activities, such as the recent Anti-homosexuality Act 2023 and amended Computer Misuse Act 2022. The blocking of online platforms also further erodes gender justice, minimising the potential for collective action and the amplification of marginalised voices.

Countering Backlash partner BIGD reported on their recently published research on online gender-based violence and backlash against women gender justice actors in Bangladesh. Currently, the south-Asian country is seeing a rapid increase in internet usage, particularly on Facebook, though evidence shows that almost 68% of Facebook users are men. According to Iffat Antara (Senior Researcher at BIGD), digital space has become an essential medium for activists and individuals to reach global audiences with messages on human rights, gender justice, and other critical social issues. They also addressed opposition from religious leaders towards comprehensive sexuality education policies and the push for discriminatory legislation such as the Anti-homosexuality Act 2023 of Uganda which argues that children’s understanding of their sexual rights makes them ‘pro-sexual’.

WOUGNET’S role in Countering Backlash

Sandra Aceng, Executive Director of WOUGNET, introduced the organisation’s work. WOUGNET has focused much of its research on online gender-based violence, and is currently implementing a project supported by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) called Our Voices, Our Futures, which aims to improve civic space online in Uganda for the women human rights defenders and feminists. WOUGNET’s goal through this project is to enhance its research on online gender-based violence and empower women actively to actively participate in shaping inclusive policies.

Efforts by the Ugandan Police Force

Francis Ogweng, Assistant Superintendent of Police in Uganda, shared the initiatives undertaken by the Uganda Police Force to promote gender justice. He said that the police are making progress towards promoting gender equality, thanks to the establishment of several directorates and departments that have an objective of reporting, analysing and tackling online gender-based violence, including the Gender Policy 2018. Besides these, there has been increased engagement with men on gender equality work as a strategy to reduce gender backlash in policing. Ogweng reported that senior officers have been promoted to higher ranks as a strategy to promote gender equality.

Ogweng is a He-For-She champion of UN Women and Uganda Police where he has promoted positive masculinity within the police. His role as champion resulted from the Uganda Police’s negative image when it comes to working with women and girls.

Despite the recent Anti-Homosexuality Act, Ogweng noted that there are a number of male-led organisations and Government initiatives promoting gender equality and ministries and other non-governmental organisations have programmes targeting male involvement in gender equality work.

Professor Maira Kubik, a Countering Backlash research partner NEIM in Brazil, defined gender backlash as a setback on rights that have not yet been achieved.

What are the trends in online gender backlash?

Antara’s research in Bangladesh explored online hate and threats of violence towards advocates for gender justice, and women in general, causing them to lose confidence and an interest in speaking out. The findings indicate that the violence women experience online has some common forms. These mainly focus on sexually explicit hate comments labelling women as sex workers, and particularly targeting women feminist activists, lawyers, and journalists. She then suggested the need to identify the severity of online gender-based violence against women on gender backlash and to improve the legal frameworks.

What are some of the achievements in gender justice?

Some of WOUGNET’s work on gender backlash is conducting research to understand the challenges that the communities we work with face. This research has shaped the capacity building work done over the years for women, and our community of practice around laws such as Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act 2011 as amended 2022, Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019, and the Anti-Pornography Act 2014 – three policies that significantly affect the meaningful participation of women in online spaces. WOUGNET also has a toll-free line 0800 200510 in place for the public to report cases of online harassment against female journalists.

Recommendations

In order to reduce gender backlash in digital spaces, laws and policies, panellists recommended conducting evidence-based research on gender backlash, building the capacity of men as anti-backlash actors, and training police officers on online gender-based violence so they can respond effectively to cases reported to their desk for investigation. Additionally, they recommended that the communities should know about some of the existing laws/policies so as to be able to fight for their rights, and to counter backlash.

Authored by: Isaac Amuku, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, and Irene Marunga, Communications associate, WOUGNET

Conference: Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South

Anti-feminist backlash is gaining momentum. It is essential for feminist organisers, activists, and researchers to collaborate to effectively counter this backlash.

The eruption of feminist responses to this backlash is evidence of just how important the concept of backlash is to feminist theorising and mobilising. Around the world, journals have devoted entire issues to the study of backlash. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Working Group on discrimination against women and girls released a paper on gender equality and gender backlash, arguing that in light of the ‘increasing misuse of the concept of gender [and] attacks on gender (equality) and women’s rights,’ it is ‘important to take stock of these developments, to counter the anti-gender attacks, and to clarify the use of the concept in relation to [OHCHR’s] mandate’.

In 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution ‘on experiencing a backlash in women’s rights and gender equality,’, and The New York Times published an article on backlash with the following tagline: ‘The rise of authoritarianism has catalyzed a rollback of gender violence protections and support systems’.

But it is essential that we do not overlook local specificities of backlash. In Lebanon, anti-feminist backlash extends beyond its normative definition as a hostile reaction or response to progress made within or by the women’s movement. Instead, anti-feminist backlash is embedded across institutions and social structures in Lebanon. This makes anti-feminist backlash less of a targeted response to a singular event; rather, anti-feminist backlash is systemic and diffusive in several contexts in the Global South.

This timely and important three-day hybrid conference, live from Beirut, Lebanon, and hosted by Countering Backlash partner Arab Institute for Women (AIW), will bring together feminist and gender experts to share, produce, and build knowledge on anti-feminist backlash. They will compare counter backlash strategies and build cross-sectoral and transnational alliances among anti-backlash actors in the Global South.

The sessions will be led by leading organisations, researchers, and activists from Countering Backlash, the Middle East region and beyond, including: the Lebanese American University, BRAC BIGD, the California State University, the Institute of Development Studies, Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Women’s Studies of the Federal University of Bahia (NEIM), Sakeena, University of Belgrade, and more.

Date and time

20 – 22 June

Location

In-person: LAU Beirut Campus, Arab Institute for Women, Beirut, Lebanon

Online: WebEx

Languages

The sessions will be conducted in English.

Find out more about each day of the conference below.


20 June

Join us on 20 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Brazil, Inida, Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 20 June sessions


  • Keynote Speech / 09:30 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Maya Mikdashi

  • Panel 1: Backlash: Understanding Power Dynamics / 11:00 12:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Lydia Both – Program Director at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)
    • Speakers:
      • Elif Savas: “Gendering the Far-Right: A Comparative Perspective” – Ph.D. Student, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst
      • Hasina Khan: “Muslim Women’s Rights in the Context of Muslim Personal Laws in India: Between State Repression and Patriarchy” – Founder and Member of the Bebaak Collective 
      • Isis Nusair: “Anti-Feminist Backlash, Counter Strategies for Resistance and Modes of Building Transnational Alliances” – Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies & International Studies, Denison University
      • Caroline Ramos: “Redpill Movement in Brazil: Straining a Re-thinking of Identity Politics Under Neoliberalism” – Researcher in Gender and Women’s Studies, American University in Cairo (AUC)

  • Panel 2: Backlash Against Gender Rights: Exploring Global and Regional Perspectives / 13:30 – 15:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Lina Kreidie – Academic Director of the Tomorrow’s Leaders Gender Scholars (TLS) Program, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Amel Grami: “Learning from the Anti-Feminist Backlash in Tunisia” – Professor of Gender Studies, University of Manouba
      • Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu: “Masculinist Backlash and KADEM” – Visiting Faculty Member in the Core Program and the Director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kadir Has University
      • Islah Jad: “The Backlash Against the CEDAWISTS: The Case of Palestine” – Associate Professor and Lecturer on Gender Issues and Politics, Women’s Studies Institute and Cultural Studies Department, Birzeit University
      • Abir Chebaro: “Misogynistic Discourse and Other Types of VAWP as Tools for Backlash on Feminism in Lebanon” – Gender Consultant and Activist

  • Panel 3: Linking Backlash and Crises: Why Now, Why Here, There and (Almost) Everywhere? / 15:30 – 17:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Sohela Nazneen – Research Fellow, IDS
    • Speakers:
      • Nay El RahiResearcher and Activist, AiW-LAU
      • Jerker EdstromResearch Fellow, IDS
      • Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu Visiting Faculty Member in the Core Program and the Director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kadir Has University
      • Teresa Sacchet: “How Far is the Concept of Backlash Helpful in Analyzing Gender-Based Political Violence? Reflections from Brazil” – Professor and Researcher of the Graduation Program in Interdisciplinary Studies on Women, Gender, and Feminism, Federal University of Bahia

21 June

Join us on 21 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Tunisia, and more.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 21 June sessions


  • Panel 4: Countering Backlash Against Gender Rights: Innovative Practices and Lessons Learned / 09:00 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Zina Sawwaf – Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, Social & Education Sciences Department, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Deepta Chopra: “Innovative Strategies to Counter ‘Cyclical Backlash’: Women Protestors in Shaheen Bagh” – Senior Research Fellow, IDS
      • Diana Ishaqat: “Lessons and Experiences: The Anti-Feminist Backlash at the Protection of Orphan Women in Jordan” – Communications and Fundraising Manager, Sakeena
      • Faten Mbarek: “Can Intersectional Movements be a Solution to Counter Anti-Feminist Backlash – Case Study from Tunisia” – Assistant Professor, University of Gafsa, and the Head of Department of Sociology, Higher Institute of Applied Studies in Humanity
      • Sriya Satuluri: “10 Steps Forward And 3 Steps Backwards: A Journey Towards Creating a Gender Just & Violence Free World” – Social Worker and Mental Health Professional, Swayam

  • Panel 5: Misogyny, Morality, and State Repression: Anti-Feminist Backlash in Pakistan, Malaysia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh / 11:00 – 13:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss – Director of the Title IX Office, LAU   
    • Speakers:
      • Azza Basarudin: “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Malaysia” – Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, California State University, Long Beach
      • Tina Beyene: “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Ethiopia” – Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, California State University, Northridge
      • Khanum Shaykh: Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Pakistan – California State University, Northridge
      • Maheen Sultan & Shravasti Roy Nathan: “Reform of the Hindu Family Law under a Muslim Majority State: Intersectional Backlash Dynamics: The Case of Bangladesh” – Senior Fellow of Practice and Co-Founder of the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation, BRAC University / Research Associate, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development

  • Panel 6: Workshop: Grasping Patriarchal Backlash: Briefing and Interactive Gameplay – Chess / 14:00 – 16:30 (UTC+3)
    • Facilitator: Jerker Edstrom – Research Fellow, IDS

22 June

Join us on 22 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Morocco, Serbia, UN Women, and more.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 22 June sessions


 

  • Panel 7: Backlash in the Media: Analyzing the Role of Traditional, Digital, and Alternative Media Outlets / 09:00 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Diana Mukalled – Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Daraj
    • Speakers: 
      • Omar Khaled: “Voices of Change: Exploring the Impact of Alternative Media Platforms in Combating Hate Speech Against Feminism in Lebanon” – General Manager, Spot Cast in Lebanon
      • Nađa Bobičić: “Anti-Gender Discourse in Serbian Mainstream Media” – Research Associate, University of Belgrade
      • Israr Hasan & Sharin Shajahan Naomi: “Online Misogyny in Bangladesh: Facebook as a Site of Anti-Feminist Backlash” – Research Associate, BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University / Gender Expert, BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health

  • Panel 8: Breaking Barriers: The Struggle for Gender Rights and Freedoms / 11:00 – 12:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Gretchen King – Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism and Communication, Department of Communication, Arts & Languages, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Sanae Ansar Ech-Chotbi: “Anti-Feminist Cyberviolence as Perceived by Activists: The Case of Morocco” – Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for Communication and Digital Media, University of Erfurt
      • Nastaran Saremy: “Woman, Life, Freedom Movement in Iran and its Regional Connections” – Ph.D. Student in Media and Communication Studies, Simon Fraser University
      • Iffat Jahan Antara & Pragyna Mahpara: “Silencing Dissent: How ‘Piety Policing’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ are Undermining Gender Justice Activism Online in Bangladesh” – Senior Research Associate, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development / Researcher, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development

  • Panel 9: Case Study on the Feminist Civil Society Platform in Lebanon / 12:30 – 13:00 (UTC+3)
    • Speakers:
      • Representative from the Feminist Platform (TBD)
      • Marianne Touma & Rima Al Mokdad: “Presentation of the Study Findings on Backlash in Lebanon” – UN Women
    • 12:30 – 13:00 (UTC+3)

  • Panel 10: Reflections on Backlash: A Conversation / 14:00 – 15:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Nay El-Rahi – Researcher and Activist, AiW-LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Sohela Nazneen: Research Fellow, IDS
      • Tessa Lewin: Research Fellow, IDS
      • Jerker Edstrom: Research Fellow, IDS

 

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.

Read Now

5 ways Uganda can #EmbraceEquity

The late 1980s was a turning point for gender justice in Uganda. The country reaffirmed gender-positive policies by embracing Affirmative Action in 1986, and incorporating Article 32 in the country’s Constitution in 1995. The article mainly addresses groups marginalised because of their gender and the historical norms that affect specific groups.

Uganda has seen many women join leadership positions both at the political and organisational levels. For instance, in the  2021 national election, 122 Members of Parliament were elected on their affirmative action positions. The affirmative action policies from the Parliament through other institutions have led to school girls from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education.

Despite this progress, there has been significant pushback on the gender progress made by women’s rights organisations, women’s movement, women human rights defenders (WHRD), and feminists in Uganda. This is because the power being held by women in leadership positions is not reflected in the policies and laws passed by Parliament.

Gender backlash is happening in digital spaces and moving into offline spaces. Even though the advancement in technology comes with its advantages, it opens up women and girls using technology to online backlash, in a context where the regulation and implementation of policy to protect them from online gender-based violence is lacking.  Countering Backlash partner WOUGNET is working to counter this.

For International Women’s Day 2023, we share five ways Uganda can promote gender justice within the region to better #EmbraceEquity.

1. Embrace a rights based approach to gender-justice

Some of the religious institutions in Uganda denounce gender-diverse rights, such as same-sex marriage. The globalising world intersecting with local traditions is producing unexpected ways of thinking about rights.

Religious and cultural groups command a huge following and often oppose equal rights for LGBTQI+ people, sex workers, and feminist movements, especially those that challenge the mainstream gender norms. They form and inform tactics for opposition, and intentionally hinder opportunities for WHRDs, LGBTQI+ people, and sex-worker communities to advocate for their rights, occupy public space and become a part of democratic processes. Religious institutions must encourage new understandings of gender-diverse rights and how to secure them in Uganda.

2. Stop violence against feminist activists and human rights defenders

The existence of different methods of violence against feminist activists, human rights defenders, and sexual rights advocates continues to evolve and manifest differently in spaces (online and offline). These attacks are through words, phrases, images and representations of women in media, where feminism is framed as the main cause of women’s problems. The raiding of LGBTQI+ shelters, the killings of LGBTQI+, and protests against same-sex marriage are a combination of direct and visible attacks on activists.

The government must stop shrinking aid programmes using the Non-Governmental Organisations Act and Anti-Money Laundering Act. They should also make funding available to research the forms and types of violent attacks happening online and offline, and include methods for public awareness on how backlash can impact women’s rights and progress on gender justice that can affect Uganda’s socio-economic development.

3. End digital and online attacks

Advances in the use of technology and digital platforms have a flip-side: the same technologies are used as tools to share masculine narratives and to attack gender advocates, feminists, and sexual rights advocates. They are used to push back gender equality achievements such as women political candidates losing seats in Parliament, for instance, the former Member of Parliament Sylvia Rwabwogo case of cyber harassment worsened by biased media reporting led to Rwabwogo’s loss of a seat in the next Parliament.

The internet can enable and also promote unwanted male gaze which causes intrusion of women’s privacy online and offline hence affecting women in public spaces. There have been increased regulation of online spaces using existing laws such as the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act 2022 and the Uganda Communications Act 2013. The latter has been used by the government to disrupt and shut down the internet, restricting individual expression online. Internet shutdowns worsen the inequality and injustice women already suffer.

Gender activists are progressing in bridging gender inequalities, reproductive rights, and freedom from gender-based violence. However, access and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help to bridge the gaps or deepen the gaps every time the internet is shut down or blocked.

There needs to be more training on network measurement in order to quantify and qualify the impact of internet shutdowns on gender justice and women’s rights online.

4. Support civic space

Civic space in Uganda is shrinking. There has been government interference and threats to close some civil society organisations, including many prominent organisations working to promote gender justice. In February 2023, Trade Minister David Bahati cited about 30 non-governmental organisations alleged to be involved in the promotion of homosexuality in Uganda that will be investigated. He added that the list of NGOs will soon be submitted to relevant security bodies for formal investigations into their activities with a view to closing their operations in Uganda. The anti-homosexuality bill will be introduced to the Parliament of Uganda to target people wishing to engage in homosexual acts, as well as organisations working on LGBTQI+ rights in the country.

In the past, women-led civil society organisations that are working with structurally silenced women such as lesbians and sex workers expressed facing challenges in their advocacy work because they are generally considered groups that are working with people engaged in criminal and immoral activities.

We must work with and build the capacity of the key stakeholders such as policymakers, journalists, and the media on the impact of shrinking civic space and gender-restrictive attitudes and discourses.

5. Support organisations fighting for gender justice in Uganda

There are local organisations, groups or people who are doing important and exciting work in Uganda related to the issues. This type of work is significant for the fight against gender backlash in Uganda, and must be supported.

Looking ahead

Although there is significant backlash against gender rights at the moment in the country, there are also opportunities to create a gender-just Uganda. We must work together to #EmbraceEquity.

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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The Implications of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 on Uganda’s Legal System

This paper analyses the contents of the Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 (AHB), traces its background and status as of the time of writing, analyses the legal issues that were likely to arise before it became law and the issues that did arise with the bill still in its pre-passed state and, finally, discusses some of the positive aspects of the bill. […]

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Then and now: limits to gender justice in Uganda

Ever since the inaugural celebrations of the International Women’s Day 110 years ago, humanity has been exhorted to challenge the status quo to actualise women’s empowerment and, ultimately, equitable benefit for all. Uganda too, in both its colonial and post-independence times, has not escaped this clarion call.

I argue that the pursuit of gender justice always intersects with the long arm of tradition, for better or for worse. Human agency enacted in the struggle for gender justice is hence often circumscribed, though not entirely determined, by institutional structure. In the latter, therefore, lie the real stakes for gender justice.

Social custom and the struggle for gender equality in colonial Uganda

Colonial Uganda offers us a myriad of cases showcasing how access to justice (or the lack thereof) is a profoundly gendered process. The ongoing doctoral research of Sauda Nabukenya—into litigation and the pursuit of justice in both Ganda native and British colonial courts in Uganda—recently unearthed an array of archival material from the basement of the historic Mengo Court. One case in particular stands out, namely Lukiko v. Simon Petero Wakiwugulu Kigozi. The stakes in this case made it travel from the Buganda native court at Mengo through the appellate British court of Judicial Advisor of Buganda to Her Majesty’s High Court of Uganda at Kampala.

In March 1941, Irene Drusilla Namaganda, widow of the King of Buganda, Kabaka Daudi Chwa, married Simon Peter Kigozi, a mukopi (Ganda commoner). Following their exchange of nuptial vows at St Luke’s Church of Kibuye, the couple proceeded to the Lubiri (the official residence estate of the Buganda king) for wedding celebrations. Thereafter, the couple moved to the Lusaka (the official palace of the Namasole, that is, Buganda Queen Mother) where they spent their first night as newly-weds. Soon after, Kigozi was sued by the Lukiko (Buganda legislative assembly) in the Principal Court of Buganda at Mengo and later convicted on two grounds of abomination, namely (i) marrying in the Lubiri and (ii) sleeping with the Namasole in the Lusaka, all supposedly in contravention of Ganda custom.

Plaintiffs from the Lukiko argued that the Lusaka belonged to the Kingdom. When the British colonial authorities, drawing on both the letter and spirit of the 1900 B(U)ganda Agreement, appeared to sympathise with the defendant, the Lukiko decided to prosecute Kigozi under a criminal rather than a civil suit. They particularly considered his sleeping with the Namasole in the Lusaka—however legally married to each other they might now be—to be “an unlawful use of the kingdom’s property” and a disturbance to the social peace of the kingdom. Kigozi’s acts were henceforth interpreted and prosecuted as a criminal offence against social order.

Deeply dissatisfied with the Mengo Court decision, Kigozi appealed to the British Judicial Advisor’s Court and later to Her Majesty’s High Court at Kampala. Kigozi’s appeal was lodged on the premise that no Buganda native court had any jurisdiction over the case given that his was a legal marriage under the British Protectorate law. In his series of appeals, Nabukenya tells us, Kigozi challenged the use of Ganda custom as the basis for convicting him criminally and decried his sentence as “repugnant to justice and morality”. The British judges nonetheless upheld the decision of the Ganda native court as Her Majesty’s Chief Justice ruled that native courts did have the power to define offences against social peace as they saw fit.

Customary practice and the fight for gender justice today

On 3 July 2020, His Lordship Justice Godfrey Namundi delivered a landmark ruling at the Family Division of the High Court of Uganda at Kampala. In a civil suit, the plaintiff (Herbert Kolya) sought (i) an order directing the defendant (Ekiriya Mawemuko Kolya) to provide an account of all the assets of the estate of the late Israel Kimomeko Kolya (who had died, testate, in 1997) and (ii) an order directing the defendant to distribute the property in the estate of her late husband in accordance with his will. The plaintiff was a paternal grandson of the late Israel Kikomeko Kolya and of his wife, the defendant.

In his will Israel Kikomeko Kolya bequeathed to the father of the plaintiff (the late Herbert Lukanga Kolya) his home at Kibuga, located in one of Kampala’s residential areas within the city centre, as well as other properties on the outskirts of the city. The plaintiff, being an administrator of the estate of the late Herbert Lukanga Kolya (the late Israel’s eldest son), claimed that on 5 April 2000 the defendant obtained letters of administration to the estate of the plaintiff’s grandfather from the Chief Magistrate’s Court of Mengo without annexing the will. Yet, the late Israel Kikomeko Kolya had made a will on 27 January 1997. The defendant filed a defence denying all allegations and averred that she was legally granted letters of administration of the estate of her late husband.

In his ruling, Justice Namundi specifically underscored that the land and home at Kibuga was a matrimonial property. Making reference to Articles 32 (1) (i.e. customs, cultures and traditions that are against the dignity, interests or welfare of women are prohibited) and 31 (1) (i.e. men and women are entitled to equal rights in marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution) of the Ugandan Constitution, Justice Namundi accordingly dismissed the plaintiff’s claim in the form it stood. In a society in which it has not been uncommon for matrimonial property to be held in the husband’s name and for the husband to bequeath it to the eldest son subject to the wife’s right to live there for life or until she remarries, this ruling appears revolutionary.

But progressive as Justice Namundi’s ruling looks to be, the enactment of gender justice here still relied on feedback from a gerontocratic customary practice: In an affidavit presented before court it was reported that upon the demise of both Israel Kikomeko Kolya and Herbert Lukanga Kolya, bereaved family members met as is customary of post-burial arrangements in Ganda society. A decision was reportedly made by older family members present in that meeting to dispense with the late Israel’s will, for the latter (in the wisdom of majority of older family members present) was defective. It was on the basis of that family decision that the Chief Magistrate Court of Mengo granted letters of administration of the estate of the late Israel Kikomeko to his widowed wife (the defendant) without annexing the will.

The judgement from the Family Division in the High Court of Uganda at Kampala (which heard the appeal) essentially rubber-stamped the decision of the Chief Magistrate Court made back in April 2000. The will in question was in itself an ostensibly patriarchal-conservative writ. Yet, the Court eventually stood with the defendant only through a recourse to another piece of evidence stemming from a gerontocratic customary practice. Differently put, on her very own, the defendant’s claims could not stand the test for gender justice.

The making or breaking power of tradition

Placing these two lawsuits on a historical continuum of struggle for gender justice shows how social custom in the 1940s was summoned to deny the widowed woman the right to take her newlywed husband ‘home’, whereas in the 2000s, thanks to a gerontocratic customary practice, the older woman’s rights as a widow overrode the patriarch’s will to bequeath the ‘matrimonial property’ to his grandson. That an older widowed woman is rendered justice in a lawsuit comprising a young man as plaintiff, and that a newlywed man was denied justice in a case involving a young widowed woman ensnared in patriarchal power also speaks volumes about the intersectionality deeply enmeshed in the struggle for gender justice.

Age, class, marital status, health status, legal status or pedigree, among other identity markers, can amplify gendered harms and further frustrate the pursuit of gender justice. To truly reckon with tradition as a force for gender justice would mean ensuring that justice for individual women is not the product of a gerontocratic system that is somehow viewed as ‘natural’ despite the fact that, in many regards, it disempowers women. It would also mean that peace among men is not pursued through resort to an entrenched regime of violence against women. Only then shall we contemplate the real dividends of gender equality.

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.