Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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JANUARY 6, 2010 7:59AM

Sexual justice in Uganda: One step back, two steps forward

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  Uganda

News stories last fall about a proposed law threatening Ugandan gays with life imprisonment and even execution have cast a sinister shadow across this troubled East African nation. Under the proposed "Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009," family members and friends of gay people could be imprisoned for up to seven years for failing to report homosexual acts within twenty-four hours, and landlords would also do time merely for renting to gay tenants. The Ugandan parliament has since dropped the threat of death from the proposal. In the words of Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo, "We now think a life sentence could be better because it gives room for offenders to be rehabilitated. Killing them might not be helpful." Even so, in late December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was clearly justified in calling the draft bill "a very serious potential violation of human rights." Sweden has threatened to halt all development transfers to Kampala and British politicians have proposed suspending Uganda from the Commonwealth. Whatever the bill's fate (the president has hinted to U.S. authorities that he will refuse to sign it), reports that American conservatives such as Rick Warren and his brethren in "The Family" may have had a hand in this affair make it all the more distatesful.

But as appalling as these attitudes (which are anything but exceptional in Africa) may appear to us, it is important to note that Uganda has nevertheless made significant advances in two separate but related areas: female genital mutilation and marriage rights.

Female genital mutilation (or FGM, often misleadingly referred to as female circumcision1) is endemic throughout many regions of Africa and represents an outrageous human rights violation. It is still practised in the Sabiny and Karamojong communities in northeast Uganda, where homespun surgeons routinely slice off the clitorises and labia of young girls with unsterilized razors and then "disinfect" the resulting wounds with liquid cattle manure. Countless girls have died from bleeding, infection, tetanus, and AIDS, and the survivors are left to cope with chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and often fatal childbirth complications. The Pokot tribe, whose territory extends into Kenya, goes a step further and practises infibulation, whereby the wounded vagina is literally sewn up tight leaving only a tiny opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The victim's husband literally cuts her open on their wedding night. More than 3,000 Ugandan girls submit to one or another form of FGM in a blood-soaked mass ritual held each December. (The global figure tops 3 million.)

FGM in Africa
(source: afrol News)

The new anti-FGM bill, which was introduced by Dr. Chris Baryomunsi, a male Ugandan MP, with support from Ugandan president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, passed through parliament unopposed on December 10, 2009. It calls for prison sentences of up to five years for those who perform and abet the procedure. If all goes well, the president will sign it into law by the end of January. Yes, enforcement in remote tribal areas will likely prove to be difficult, but this is very definitely a step in the right direction. 

A draft law on marriage and divorce rights, which is being pushed by MP Jane Alisemera Babiha with considerable male support, is currently pending in parliament. Under the proposed legislation,  Ugandan women will now have the right to sue their husbands for divorce on the basis of cruelty and impotence. The law also bans arranged marriages without both partners' consent and also puts an end to the time-honored practice of forcibly marrying widows off to their brothers-in-law. It explicitly bans marriage rape. (A law passed in November formally classifies domestic abuse as a distinct crime and punishes it by fines, restitution, community service, and up to two years in prison.) Additional features call for the co-ownership of property within marriage and an equitable division of property following divorce.

Jane Alisemera Babiha
Ugandan MP Jane Alisemara Babiha
(source: womensenews.org)

This law has been generations in the making and is one of the most progressive such pieces of legislation in all of Africa. Even so, it will not protect all women: so far it only extends to Christians, Hindus, and animists. Separate legislation for the twelve percent of Ugandan women who are Muslim - many of whom live in polygamous marriages and are subject to Sharia law -  has yet to be introduced. Nor does the legislation address the complex issue of the "bride price," a custom whereby the bridegroom gives costly presents to the bride's family which he can demand back in case of divorce, profoundly complicating matters. And let us not forget that this law is still a proposal - while it could be passed as early as January 2010, it is anything but a done deal. Even so, the mere introduction of such sweeping legislation is - once more - a dramatic step forward for Ugandan women.

There is no doubt that these advances have only been possible because Ugandan women have banded together in organizations such as the Uganda Women's Parliamentarian Association, the Women of Uganda Network, and other such groups and made them happen. But what of Uganda's gays? As desperate as their situation may appear, just remember that the current legislation designed to criminalize their very existence is partially a reaction to their increasingly vocal quest for justice. According to Ugandan gay activist David Cato, "It's a question of visibility.  When we come out and ask for our rights, they pass laws against us." So could this draft law represents a painful step backward that will presage a cautious step forward? We can only hope so - while adding our voices to the international protest.

David Cato
Ugandan gay rights activist David Cato

But in the meantime, let us join Uganda's women in celebrating their latest victories. They've earned them.


1 The World Health Organization classifies FGM into four types: 

•Type I. Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris. 

•Type II.
Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora. 

•Type Ill.
Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation). 

•Type IV.
Unclassified: this includes pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue.
For more on female genital mutilation and women in Uganda, check out my other OS posts. 

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Remarkable. Too bad our media tells us so little about this sort of thing.
What Cats said. This is an informative article, as opposed to the sensationalist and simplistic 'info' in the media. Thanks.
The evangelical, Christian right in the U.S. has decided to move their operation on to Africa, shamelessly exploiting people and spewing untruths about gays and lesbians. Just look at the members of "The Family" and its ties to Uganda. These are our elected lawmakers. It's disgusting.
"But as appalling as these attitudes (which are anything but exceptional in Africa) may appear to us, it is important to note that Uganda has nevertheless made significant advances in two separate but related areas: female genital mutilation and marriage rights."


Ummmm, no. That would be like congratulating a man for only beating his children with his left hand instead of both. We just can't accept ANY degrees of disgusting.

They are a sovereign nation and can do as they damn well please, but so can the rest of the world. Until they are in alignment with the rest of the world regarding basic human rights they should receive no aid, assistance or support from any developed nation.

Additionally anyone who considers "We now think a life sentence could be better because it gives room for offenders to be rehabilitated. Killing them might not be helpful." to be the statement of a sane person is as crazy as Buturo. I mean, WTF! "Rehabilitation" by life sentences and cold blooded murder isn't "helpful"???
Excellent posting. Thank you for your coverage of this.