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. These organisations include the Refugee Law Project, Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Human Rights Watch, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), Oxfam Uganda, Sexual Minority Right Uganda (SMUG), Chapter Four Uganda, and among others.
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.