INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: ‘We Will Demonstrate, As They Celebrate’

Posted on 08 March 2010 by admin

Women protest against the suppression of their rights. Credit:Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi/IPS

By Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Mar 8, 2010 (IPS) – ‘Equal rights; equal opportunities’ may be the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, but while women around the world celebrate, a group of Ugandan women are protesting against the suppression of their rights.

Women’s rights activists in Uganda say equal rights for women are non-existent. “There is no reason for the Ugandan woman to celebrate this day,” says Ingrid Turinawe, an opposition politician and chairperson of ‘Women for Peace’, a women’s group formed by the Inter Party Coalition (IPC) – an alliance of opposition parties in Uganda.

“It has been 24 years of poverty, no medicines in hospitals and no employment for women and our children; 24 years of women dying during child birth every day. Why should we celebrate the high prices of basic commodities? Can we celebrate as more girls drop out of school? We will demonstrate, as they celebrate,” says Turinawe who is also the chairperson of the opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change, Women’s League. (Twenty four years ago the National Resistance Movement came to power and has been the ruling party ever since.)

Over 100 women demonstrated on Mar. 8, peacefully marching from the city centre to Mulago, the largest referral hospital in the capital Kampala. They sang and carried placards and banners with messages that read: ‘(Uganda’s) mothers are suffering; we deliver babies on bare floors.’ The women visited expectant mothers in the maternity wards and handed them basic items like sugar, soap and salt under tight police watch.

Rights violations

There is more to the women’s plight than poverty and maternal health. Turinawe is still bitter over an arrest that saw her and 32 other IPC women harassed, beaten and set upon by police dogs. The women were arrested, stripped of their clothing and charged with ‘unlawful society’ recently when they tried to deliver a petition to the chairman of the country’s Electoral Commission (EC).

The women were calling for the EC’s chairman, Badru Kiggundu, and six of his commissioners to resign. Their protests came after weeks of criticism among opposition parties over the re-appointment of the commissioners despite widespread irregularities in the 2006 elections, which they oversaw.

The women activists – many of whom are aspirants for positions in parliament and at local council level – say they visited the EC to engage their own rights. They say they fear the possibility of post election violence should the elections be rigged. In such cases, women and children suffer most, they say. “We were trying to save Uganda from a ‘Kenya-like’ post-election violence come 2011,” Turinawe says.

However, they were arrested and accused of illegal assembly and trespassing. “They brutally arrested us, undressed us in police cells, tortured and set dogs on to us. We were just unarmed peaceful women,” Turinawe says in an interview with IPS.

“As women, we have a number of issues that affect us; we want to see changes, socially, economically and politically. We have no other (weapon) to fight for change other than our vote. My vote is my hope and my vote is the future of my children. Why should I sit back and look silently as Kiggundu is rigging my hope, my vote?” Turinawe says.

But spokesperson of the EC, Charles Willy Ochola, says the women were thrown out because “they were becoming a security threat.” He also claims the women’s motives were not known. “They claimed they had a petition. A petition is a letter. Does it need more than thirty people to bring a petition?” he asks.

Nevertheless, Ochola adds, the commission had regrets over the incident. “The EC has regrets over the incident but it was not done with the commissions permission. It was the police. We regret the action.”

Despite Ochola’s statement some at the commission do not believe in women’s rights. “Women do not belong (at) the Electoral Commission. They belong to the bedroom,” one EC official said after the incident.

However, police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba says the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, will not apologise for the women’s arrests. “They may be women but they are not above the law,” Nabakooba said.

Consequently an attempt by the ‘Women for Peace’ to meet the speaker of parliament two weeks later was also blocked by police.

Women activists have since rejected the reasons for the arrests.

“These women were not violent and were just demonstrating against the Electoral Commission. This just tells you that violence is across the board on citizens and nobody cares if you are a woman or a man. Unfortunately these were women and some were even breastfeeding mothers,” said Marren Akatsa-Bukachi, executive director of the East African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women, a women’s organisation in Kampala.

She said the harassment by police could deter women from participating in politics, campaigning, speaking out or even voting.

But Turinawe says she is neither deterred, nor afraid for her life: “As an individual, I may have the capacity to resist (being deterred). But yes, most women will now be scared to involve in politics.”

Violating women’s space

Salome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe, executive director of Akina Mama Wa Africa, a Pan Africanist women’s organisation based in Kampala describes the incident as a violation of the women’s rights.

Women also have a right to voice their concerns, right to participate and have their issues discussed at a table, she says. She also condemned the way police handled the women, emphasising that authorities should desist from “the use and abuse of women’s bodies…”

“The institution of the police owes the women of this country an apology because this is not happening for the first time. This (undressing of women) is becoming a modus operandi especially when women are being arrested by police,” Kimbugwe says.

Indeed this is not the first time that women politicians have been undressed in public. In 2008, Kampala Central MP Nagayi Nabbila was arrested as she addressed her constituents in Owino, Uganda’s largest market. Then, TV cameras captured pictures of showed her undergarments being revealed as the police forced her onto a pick up.

“Our private parts and bodies are private to us unless we decide to share them and expose them. We call upon the police to respect that right to privacy. I have never seen a picture in this country where a man has been arrested and their trousers have been stripped off…,” Kimbugwe says.


She said the harassment of women and the suppression of their rights were happening in a country signatory to the Bill of Rights and which had a gender-friendly constitution.

“The way these women were handled was like telling them: ‘You have to go back to the private space. You are not supposed to be in the political space’ because it (the stripping of the women) is a way in which our sexuality, our bodily integrity and our bodies are used as a tool of shame to take you back,” Kimbugwe says.

Adding bricks

Nevertheless, these incidents strengthen the case for equality for women, activists say.

“The women are engaging in a process, a difficult process where everybody expects them to be home cooking food for their husbands…That is a very powerful statement,” Kimbugwe says.

The ‘Women for Peace’ intend to organise a series of similar protest activities countrywide until Election Day in January 2011.

“We don’t mind being arrested again and again. This is a struggle we will fight until we win. Being arrested is better than seeing my children die in a war,” Turinawe says.


1 Comments For This Post

  1. Sophia Sirius Says:

    In Celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1st call for international womens day in 1910, we are making an online reader’s edition of our new book, Wings & Dreams: 4 Elements of a New Feminism, accessible here.

    Please share this among your women’s communities.

    The Sophia Sirius Publishing Team

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Feminist Peace Network » Blog Archive » Continuing Reflections On International Women’s Day Says:

    [...] Ugandan women are protesting, not celebrating because as they elegantly point out, equality remains elusive. [...]

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