50.50: Opinion

Uganda’s sexual offences law is a bitter lesson for the women’s movement

Why did women MPs support a new law that entrenches oppression?

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
6 May 2021, 1.18pm
Protesters outside the Uganda High Commission in London urging Uganda’s president not to sign a law targeting LGBT organisations
Dinendra Haria / Alamy Stock Photo.

This week, Uganda passed a “sexual offences” law that entrenches the colonial-era prohibition of same-sex relations and sex work, criminalises “false rape allegations” and threatens ‘revenge porn’ victims with prison sentences.

These reforms divided Uganda’s human rights movement from the start, and even had some support from women’s groups. The passage of the new law shows how ‘proper woman’ politics won over feminist solidarity – and what needs to change to reverse this damaging trend.

A sexual offences bill was first tabled in 2015 by Monicah Amoding, an MP who was elected to parliament to represent women as a special interest group, and had the support of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association and UN Women. Supporters of the bill from within Uganda’s women’s movement argued that it was “gender-sensitive” and would bring progressive new protections into Ugandan law.

For instance, a draft clause sought to widen the definition of rape to include the withdrawal of consent during sex. The bill also aimed to consolidate all sexual offences into a single piece of legislation.

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Feminist critics, however, argued that these measures were not an acceptable trade-off for the bill’s hostility to LGBTQI people, sex workers and victims of ‘revenge porn’ abuse.

If a ‘sexual offences’ bill fails to secure the meaning of consent, what’s the point of it?

In the end, the compromise came to nothing. When the law was passed on Monday, male MPs fought successfully to drop the clause on the withdrawal of consent, while retaining the homophobic, anti-sex worker and victim-blaming provisions.

Indeed, the new law tightens the ban on same-sex relations. The existing prohibition did not explicitly ban homosexuality; it depended on same-sex relations being interpreted as acts that are “contrary to the order of nature”. The new definition is specific: it is “a ban on a sexual act between persons of the same gender”.

Divided we fall

The women parliamentarians who championed the new bill might have been hoping that they could empower ‘good’ women by distinguishing them from LGBTQI people and ‘bad girls’ who take sexy pictures of themselves. But they were in for a surprise – they came up against the same opposition that these other groups face.

The clause on withdrawal of consent, for instance, was attacked by MP David Bahati, author of Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became law in 2014 but was later annulled by the country’s Constitutional Court on technical grounds. Bahati argued that the proposed clause was a threat to “African marriage”.

The women’s rights activists who supported the bill chose to throw sex workers and sexual minorities under the bus, as it were, in an attempt to bargain with a patriarchal parliament. But under patriarchal politics, only men are safe.

Parliament rejected the key element of consent, the most basic expression of women’s bodily autonomy. If a “sexual offences” bill fails to secure the meaning of consent, what’s the point of it?

Cis or trans, straight or queer, good girl or sex worker, passive victim or otherwise, none of us will ever be ‘proper’ enough to be ‘one of the boys’. Intersectionality demands that we understand the oppression faced by different groups and then unite against the system that oppresses us. We can’t trade some of us away to secure the others.

What’s more, sex workers and LGBTQI people take part in civil society, including electoral politics – and, in particular, in campaigns for women candidates. It is only fair, then, that the leaders they elect stop speaking only for ‘acceptable’ kinds of people. ‘Proper women’ politics is not the answer. In fact, it’s the problem – it’s why we have been stuck in the same bad place for decades.

How to widen resistance

The Ugandan women’s movement has made considerable strides for us all. It secured constitutional quotas and other affirmative action for diversity in electoral politics, as well as more inclusion in education and other areas of society. Now, it must learn from its less lauded peers.

Activists from queer and sex worker communities challenge sexual moralising. They push us all to accept that sexuality is diverse, as are sexual needs and how they are met – even in a place like Uganda.

Despite a truly hostile environment over the past two decades, LGBT rights activists have achieved some hard-won successes, including court rulings in favour of their right to a fair hearing and right to privacy. We would all do better if we emulated them.

UN Women and other donors should move away from ‘proper women’ politics to intersectional feminism. The latest statistics from the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) show that a mere 1% of all gender-focused aid went to feminist movements. The resources are skewed in favour of the kind of tick-box “gender-sensitive” work that results in homophobic, anti-sex worker and victim-blaming outcomes – just like the law Uganda’s women parliamentarians are congratulating themselves for passing.

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