A significant victory in the long struggle to end the reign of Uganda’s military dictator was won last week after a bold action by the country’s burgeoning women’s movement. In late August, Uganda’s parliament presented a bill before House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga suggesting that the age limits for judges be raised, which activists believed would inevitably lead to the raising of presidential age limits. Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 30 years, is set to surpass the constitutionally-permitted maximum age of 75 this term.
In response, a group calling themselves the Women’s Movement, obtained the green light from authorities to circle Uganda’s parliament seven times in prayer against the raising of age limits on September 13.
Yet, when the women — wearing white to avoid party colors and project an image of unity — convened at the National Theatre just opposite parliament, the police told them they would not be allowed to go ahead. Tear gas cannons were stationed just beyond the fences of the National Theatre, and anti-riot police surrounded the group, who were grandmothers, unemployed youth, union workers, Muslims and Christians.
When Susan Mirembe, a human rights lawyer with the civil liberties organization Chapter Four, argued with the male police about their misconduct, they picked her up and threw her into the bed of a police truck.
The other women began demanding that if one of them was to be arrested, then they all should be arrested. Some of the women who had left children with babysitters or thought it prudent to stay behind and help with the aftermath of the incident discretely slipped away from the scene, immediately calling lawyers, media, humans rights organizations and other stakeholders that could lend a hand.
“I began to think I would be beaten based on past police behavior,” Sharon Katura, one of the participants, said. “I had been looking forward to a peaceful march around parliament where we could present our concerns.”
The police did not have enough space in their truck for the women, so they brought another.
“When we were divided among two trucks, I began to worry that they would take us to different police stations,” said Scovia Arinaitwe, a Solidarity Uganda staff member who often helps victims of political persecution. “They drove at breakneck speeds, but luckily some of our media supporters were able to follow on motorcycles. They usually separate political suspects when possible, but in this case they brought us all to the distant Kira Namugongo station.”
The two dozen women were asked to hand in their possessions and phones, but refused to do so, claiming that they had not been charged with any crime and were therefore not under arrest.
I called Berna Bakkidde, another human rights lawyer who had been arrested. She answered her phone from within the cell. “They have seized 24 of us, but we have a number of people on their way [to the station to demand our release].”
One such person was Irene Ovunji, the CEO of FIDA, a women’s rights group. “This all raises the question of whether you can trust the police,” she noted. “The policeman says, ‘let me see your letter [granting clearance to hold the peaceful action],’ you give the letter and he takes it from you … It is important for the police and the Ugandan government to know they are supposed to uphold the law.”
Perhaps the idea of relying on human rights defenders, lawyers and organizations is coming to an end. Defenders don’t win a game. Those with offensive strategies do, and attack is exactly what the women did from within their cell.
They found some jerrycans and started banging them as drums, singing songs, dancing and enjoying themselves.
“Some nearby residents and even suspects being held in other cells gained a lot of morale,” Arinaitwe said. “When the police said they needed the jerrycans to go and fetch water, we told them these ones were old and unsanitary. We told them they should buy new ones.”
“As the district police commander was talking to us very arrogantly, he received a call,” explained Eunice Musiime, executive director of Akina Mama wa Afrika, or AMwA, another organization which had helped organize the action and obtain clearance from police. “After receiving that call it seemed he had made up his mind to release all of us without charge.”
Throughout the week after their release, the women gathered informally to reflect on what went well and how they could fine tune future actions. “What does it say about us if we shy away in the presence of police after agreeing to an action?” mused Patience Ayebazibwe, an AMwA program officer. “That has been a question I keep asking myself.”
“We can practice some safe actions, such as converging to pray in our places of worship while wearing white,” said Arinaitwe. She emphasized that this would encourage broader participation. Uganda is a highly theistic country, with over 80 percent practicing Christianity and the majority of the rest practicing Islam. Tapping into existing religious structures makes a lot of sense for building a critical mass.
Even with just a few dozen people participating in this particular action, the women achieved their goal, which was to tell the nation and the parliamentarians that they would not stand for the raising of age limits, whether for judges or for the head of state. They may not have been able to complete their planned march, but their arrests created much drama, which in turn led to media coverage.
The women’s movement in Uganda is not new. Many of the women involved in it had launched a whistle-wearers campaign in 2014, but the movement dissipated, according to Musiime, because “everyone was responsible and no one was responsible” for its inner workings. It wasn’t until after February’s stolen election that shared anger revived the movement in Kampala.
In this first action since 2014, the women show the kind of promise and potential to transform the political system of Uganda that the leading opposition party and its activists — as well as other movements pioneered largely by men — have not managed to realize over the course of many years.
Stakeholders outside of the typical activist circles, human rights organizations and partisan efforts are already leading the charge. Janepher Nassali, the secretary general of Uganda Horticultural, Industrial Service Providers and Allied Workers’ Union, was instrumental in organizing some of the union members to participate.
“We have a collective responsibility as Ugandans to protect the constitution,” she said. “Today it’s the age limits [being changed]. Who knows? Tomorrow someone will table a bill to ban trade unions.”
Nassali wants to organize more women in other parts of the country, not just Kampala. “In all of those workplaces where unions operate, women are being oppressed in one way or the other,” she said. “These arrests have just raised the morale of the people … and they can’t arrest 10 million of us.”
Ambitions are high and the women of Uganda are not just managing the aftermath of the state resistance to this “launch action.” In the recent past, some of the women in the movement spent significant time, energy and resources struggling to release fellow members from prison or cope with intimidation. This time, repression is building their public profile and their morale. In a state where torture and prolonged detainment without trial are the norm, it is impressive how organized and effective they are even prior to making a name for themselves. Their solidarity and excitement is likely to be contagious as they recruit new members and build something with substantial clout.
On September 14, a day after their protest, Kadaga tossed out the age limit bill, saying it was too much of a threat to the constitution. This certainly marks a step in the right direction for these women, and for all Ugandans sick of one of the world’s youngest population being bossed around by an old man who has clung to power far too long.
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