Uganda: Vagina Monologues a flashpoint for women?s rights

Date: January 1, 1970
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Jackie Wesonga, a secondary school teacher, joined the ranks of disappointed women when the Ugandan government announced a ban on The Vagina Monologues. She had already bought her ticket.

Jackie Wesonga, a secondary school teacher, joined the ranks of disappointed women when the Ugandan government announced a ban on The Vagina Monologues. She had already bought her ticket.

The State Minister of Information, Nsaba-Buturo, announced in early February that the play had been banned “because its title would corrupt the morals of society.”

"That was uncalled for, unfair and unconstitutional. How dare they do that at the time women are steadily getting their feet on the ground? That is suppression, taking us 10 steps back,” said Wesonga, a survivor of domestic violence. "Women still have a long way to go; a hard battle to fight in this chauvinist world."

The controversy over the staging of Eve Ensler’s world famous play has raised new questions about how far Ugandan women have really come in their fight for gender justice.

Organised by Ugandan women’s groups, the staging of “The Vagina Monologues” aimed – as it has done elsewhere – to raise awareness on gender-based violence, with women reciting their stories of rape, incest, domestic battering and genital mutilation. Proceeds were dedicated to assisting women in the conflict northern regions of the country.

The organisers, Akina Mama wa Afrika, ISIS-WICCE and Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) argued that the play was meant to educate and inform. "This is tantamount to silencing women’s voices and is and has always been the major obstacle in addressing violence against women in a substantive way," the women’s organisations said in a press statement on February 19: the day the play would have been performed.

At the same event, women’s rights activist and former Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Miria Matembe – who came to the limelight when she proposed that all defilers should be castrated – said the ban was a move by the government and the Media Council to silence survivors of domestic violence and sexual harassment by men. "If it was men staging it, I think it (the play) would have been allowed," Matembe said.

For Ugandan gender activists, who have enjoyed a relatively enabling environment under the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government over the past 19 years, the banning of “The Vagina Monologues” is like an ice cold glass of water thrown on the face of the women’s movement.

Uganda’s 1995 Constitution, said to be one of the most “women-friendly” worldwide, provides the legal basis for equality between the sexes and affirmative action in favour of women. The 1997 National Gender Policy and the 1999 National Action Plan for Women further strengthen the policy framework for women to achieve political, economic and social equality.

Uganda has a one third quota for women in decision-making and was the first African country to have a woman vice-president. But the controversy over the Vagina Monologues suggests that changes in attitude may just be skin deep.

"Women have crossed that imaginary line between the private or domestic
sphere and entered in to the public sphere," said Dr Sylvia Tamale, a prize-winning women’s rights activist and first woman Dean of Makerere University’s Law faculty.

"We have more women quantitatively in positions of power, but qualitatively nothing has been done to enhance their participation," said Dr Tamale. Citing the example of the former Vice President Specioza Kazibwe she said: “When President Museveni would travel, Kazibwe was not second in power. She was in power without power."

There are many traditional customs that deny women their basic human rights.
For instance, although the Land Act provides for equal access of land for all citizens, traditionally, women cannot own land.

Practices like wife inheritance and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are still widespread. One of the most significant signs of the unequal gender power relations in the East African nation is the prevalence of gender-based violence.

According to the latest Demographic and Health Survey released by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, more than three-quarters of the women surveyed believe wife beating is justified when a woman burns the food, argues with her husband, goes out without informing her husband, neglects the children and refuses to have sex with her husband.

"This is not surprising, because traditional norms teach women to accept, tolerate and even rationalise battery," the report says. "This norm is a great barrier to women’s empowerment with consequences for their health."

One piece of legislation the government continues to drag its feet on is the Domestic Relations Bill, which addresses issues such as women’s property rights in marriage; rights to negotiate sex on health grounds; prohibits FGM; sets a minimum age for marriage; and criminalises widow inheritance.

“When it comes to women’s rights, culture is always invoked as an excuse,” Dr Tamale observed.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.



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