Last February I posted two reports on the Vagina Monologues in Uganda: Vaginas Speak in Kampala and Vaginas Silenced in Kampala. The VM were to be shown in Kampala on February 18th but unfortunately they were banned by the government.
The Media Council of Uganda has banned The Vagina Monologues which were to be staged in Kampala on Friday. Women’s groups in Uganda hoped to use the play to "raise concerns about the rights of women, their suffering on the domestic and other fronts" as well as to raise much needed funds to support women victims of violence.
One of the women involved with staging the play in Kampala is Sarah Mukassa, a Programmes Manager with Akina Mama wa Afrika an African women’s NGO. In March I ‘spoke’ with Sarah about the VM via email. Apologies for the delay in publishing the interview but this is due to our respective travel schedules in March and April.
BL: Could you give me some
background on how the Vagina Monologues (VM) came to Uganda. What was the
reasoning behind the decision to bring it to Kampala and who was behind that
SM: The VDay campaign began when a
group of us got together and felt that for the 16 Days of Activism Against
Gender Violence in this country, we would try to do something that raised this
critical political, social and economic issue to the top of the public agenda.
The government of Uganda (GoU) recognises that violence against women is a
serious development issue which requires substantive action at all levels. We
saw the success of the campaign in neighbouring Kenya, and saw the impact it
had in terms of raising public awareness of these issues in an accessible way
and also of mobilising policy makers and legislators at all levels to address
the issue of violence against women.
BL: What were your expectations as
far as the response to the VM from women of Uganda, the Ugandan media and the
SM: We expected debate and
discourse. We also expected deep resistance from the conservative and deeply
patriarchal societies. This play has been controversial wherever it has been
staged, with a great deal of resistance as well as support.
BL: According to reports the
organisers behind bringing the VM to Uganda had hoped to use the
production to raise the awareness about
gender violence in Uganda and to raise funds to help victims of gender
violence. Why did the organisers particularly choose the VM to do this and do you think they achieved their aims despite the banning of
the play? Where you able to raise any
funds at all?
SM: The funds are currently being
audited after which we intend to hold a press conference to announce the
amounts of money raised. The VM is a play which challenges deeply held
patriarchal beliefs about women’s bodily integrity, autonomy and choice. It
shows how these beliefs impact on women’s lives negatively and what women have
done to address issues of their sexuality and choice. Violence particularly
that of a sexual nature, is a means to control and curtail women’s freedoms.
Women in the north as in other situations of conflict, experience brutal
violence, in which their bodies are used as a battle ground for the fighting
factions. They are targeted for sexual violence as a means of humiliating the
entire community. Forced pregnancy, abortion, abduction, rape, and other forms
of sexual slavery are increasingly being used against women, with impunity for
the perpetrators. This play highlights these issues in a non theoretical and
straight forward way.
BL: The Minister of Information,
James Buturo said the government would “punish” whoever “defies” the Media
Council’s order to stop shows of the play and that if they (the organisers)
felt aggrieved they could go to the court for redress. Was this just a hollow remark or could the
organisers have gone to court and if so why do you think they chose not to.
SM: There is a constitutional court
to which the organisers can go. But it is not an immediate remedy. It takes
time, and it becomes a long and laborious process. It is therefore more a long
term measure and it is also costly.
BL: Why do you think the government
responded in such a harsh way to the showing of the VM? Why were they so
“offended” by the discussion of the vagina?
SM: It is patriarchy, and also right
wing religious fundamentalism, in government and in society in general that did
not want this play. This as I say has been the same everywhere this play has
been staged. The difference is that this government failed to uphold the
fundamental right of freedom of expression, which other countries, such as
Egypt, Pakistan, The DRC and Burkina Faso deemed far greater a consideration
than the moral objections of a section of our society.
BL: The media and government of
Uganda branded the campaigners of the play as lesbians. I understand that you responded to these
accusations by saying “"This morning, the minister has branded us
lesbians. Incidentally, these people(lesbians) exist and we cannot deny this
fact. They are normal human beings like the rest of us." I think this was
a very brave and courageous statement
for you to make. I understand you have
also made other comments that challenge the assumption that being a lesbian is
a terrible thing. Could you please
comment on these.
SM: As organisations co sponsoring
this campaign, we believe that we have to uphold the right of every woman to
enjoy and exercise her freedom as spelled out in the Constitution and other
international and regional human rights instruments. This includes straight,
lesbians, bisexual, celibate, rich, poor, young, old, Christian, Islamic,
married, single etc. Many of us have come to the realisation that it is not in
order to seek rights for ourselves whilst at the same time denying others
theirs on the grounds that they are different from ourselves. This is where we
are coming from. If we call ourselves women’s rights activists, then there
should be no aspect of womanhood we are not prepared to defend — Vagina and
BL: How do you think the lesbian and
gay community in Uganda should proceed in the struggle for legal recognition
given their rights under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights?
SM: Perhaps a thing to do, would be
to challenge in the constitutional court, the law which outlaws homosexuality,
on the grounds that it contravenes the equality principle in the Constitution.
This is a long shot, since our judiciary is an extremely conservative. But they
have surprised us in the past. I have to say though that this is not an easy
struggle, since homophobia is almost psychotic in this country. Even seemingly
normal, well reasoned people, go into a fit of apoplexy when the question of
the rights of same sex rights comes up. It has been difficult to mobilise
BL: Gender violence is a global
issue for women. With regards to Uganda
in particular and Africa in general how much do you think cultural practices
influence or play a part in violence against women? Do you have any ideas on how to specifically deal with gender
violence that is culturally motivated such as FGM, widowhood rites and inheritance
laws, and property ownership all of which discriminate and hurt women and
SM: Cultural practices by and large
reflect a male world view. It is they who define cultural norms and customs.
Women have a role in as much as they are custodians of these rules and norms.
Therefore culture is patriarchal, and as such ensures male hegemony in our
societies. Violence is one of the means to keep these controls in place. In
that sense violence in culture is very often considered legitimate and even
protected by our cultural norms. Domestic violence is defended on the grounds
that it is a man’s right to discipline his household. FGM is used as means to
control women’s sexuality and so on. Cultural practises which abuse the dignity
of women, must be challenged and resisted at all costs.
BL: The women of Uganda seem to me
to be very organised and progressive around issues of women’s rights. As a Nigerian I do not feel we have the same
level of organisation at least not on a politically progressive level. Why do you think this is so?
SM: I don’t think I agree with your analysis. The women’s
movement is experiencing a huge backlash here by the religious fundamentalists
(who are backed by the Bush administration). Many of the gains in the past now
stand to be lost. And the women’s movement here is almost powerless to do
anything about it. There are a number of key pieces of legislation on the
rights of women which have been thrown out by parliament. The women’s movement
appeared to be strong but it is now being questioned whether or not that ever
was. For many, the seemingly strong movement, was only able to operate because
of the space the government at the time afforded them. Now that the good will
has run out and the government has turned its attention to other priorities,
the movement has no base of its own to withstand this loss of support