Women ′must speak out′ on Ugandan social media | DW Freedom | Speech. Expression. Media. | DW | 02.06.2017
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Freedom of Speech

Women 'must speak out' on Ugandan social media

A female academic in Uganda was arrested last month after she criticized the president and his minister wife. Journalist Lindsey Kukunda wonders whether the negative reactions to her views were because she’s a woman.

Stella Nyanzi (pictured above), a renowned academic researcher at Makerere University in Uganda, gained national and international notoriety recently for politically expressing herself in a manner many Ugandans considered inappropriate. In a Facebook post, she referred to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as "a pair of buttocks."

Her pointed comments landed her a month-long stay in a Ugandan maximum security prison. Her grievances started with a campaign pledge to provide schoolgirls with free sanitary pads as studies show that one in three Ugandan girls drops out of school after they start having their periods.

Yoweri Museveni und Janet Museveni (picture alliance/AP Photo/S.Wandera)

Yoweri and Janet Museveni have been in power in Uganda for over 30 years

In February, Minister of Education Janet Kataha Museveni – also the wife of the president – announced that there was no money in the budget to provide the pads as was promised. This is nothing new as making and breaking campaign promises is as natural as photosynthesis in Uganda.

But Nyanzi had had enough. She wrote a long commentary on her personal Facebook page criticizing both the president and his wife and started her own campaign to raise money for sanitary pads for school girls.

The post went viral and she was subsequently arrested and charged with "cyber harassment and offensive communication." She is currently out on bail pending trial. 

'Seen and not heard'

Most Ugandans who openly criticize politicians are selective about who they attack and few have had the courage to make pointed statements against the first family. Even fewer would do so using obscenities and words such as "buttocks.” But her commentary struck a nerve.

Lindsey Kukunda is a Ugandan journalist and the editor of the Facebook page 'Not Your Body.'

Lindsey Kukunda is a Ugandan journalist and the editor of the Facebook page 'Not Your Body'

Many male and female Ugandans consider Stella Nyanzi to be simply an indecent, uncouth woman whose messages are weakened by the manner in which she presented them. They believe that an argument that uses "inappropriate" language is not valid. Plus they criticize that for a mother of three, such language is not acceptable. Others called her "ugly."

But would these same comments have been made if "Stella" was instead named "Steve?" For the average Ugandan woman, this type of cyber bullying works like a charm. The term "ugly" when applied to a man loses much of its impact.

Apparently fighting for the rights of young girls to remain in school is only acceptable if done in a way that is not socially disruptive. The message is clear: A woman should be seen and not heard.

'Crazy' woman

As a woman who finds it hard to hold her tongue when faced with male aggression and societal oppression, I have been subject to the same level of vitriol. I have been a victim to it in taxi parks, on the street and non-stop on social media by men and women who attack even my right to question the status quo. Even policemen have dismissed me as a "crazed woman" for demanding my due respect.

Unfortunately this male-dominant mentality - and women supporting it - is pervasive and it will get louder as we "crazy feminists" get louder standing up for ourselves and our sisters. But if women are bullied to be quiet on social media, it means that women are not discussing the issues that we face in Uganda. And if we are not discussing our problems, we're not discussing solutions.

Dirty language notwithstanding, Stella Nyanzi got Ugandan women and men to care about and discuss the critical issue of providing sanitary pads for school girls. This is why we shall not keep quiet.

Lindsey Kukunda is a Ugandan journalist and the editor of the Facebook page "Not Your Body." This commentary is a part of DW's Freedom of Speech Project  which aims to highlight voices from around the world on the topics of freedom of expression and press freedom.

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