Wednesday, October 5

‘Sexual abuse is normalised’: Uganda struggles with #MeToo | Women’s rights and gender equality

Yon September 2018, a Ugandan lawyer, Samantha Mwesigye, filed a sexual harassment complaint against her boss at the Ministry of Justice. She says she hoped it would end a cycle of unwanted sexual advances and workplace retaliation.

It was a year after the #MeToo movement had taken off, with women around the world increasingly prepared to hold powerful men to account for sexual harassment and abuse.

Women’s groups rallied behind Mwesigye, holding press conferenceswriting articles and showing online support. They saw hers from her as a test case.

But what came next was much worse than the decade of harassment she claimed to have endured, Mwesigye says. She was dismissed from her job and rendered “unemployable” in legal circles, while her boss de ella, Christopher Gashirabake, was cleared by an internal review at the ministry – and was promoted twice, rising to become an appeal court judge.

Gashirabake declined the Guardian’s requests for comment, but he has previously denied the allegations. In 2019, he issued a lengthy rebuttal of Mwesigye’s claims of her and a counterattack in which he accused her of a smear campaign. He said he had spoken to her in the past about dressing inappropriately and dyeing her hair red, and claimed to have withdrawn her from certain work situations because her clients found her rude.

“One time I confronted him [over] sexual harassment and he taunted me to report him to public services, saying that there was nothing much they would do to him.

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“For me to see that unfold before my eyes threw me off the edge,” says Mwesigye, who also has a further complaint pending against Gashirabake.

In 2019, she filed a case against him and the attorney general for sexual harassment and unlawful termination. The case has been added numerous times.

“This is not something that I’m willing to let go. I’d already anticipated that, from start to finish, this could take at least 10 years, but it’s so upsetting that I’ve spent the first four without being heard,” she says.

Mwesigye also knows that if she appeals against a decision on her outstanding case, it would be heard by the court in which her alleged aggressor is a judge.

In Uganda, one in five women aged 15 to 49 have experienced sexual violence. Fear of harassment and abuse are part of many women’s daily realities, but they are often disregarded.

“Nobody takes sexual harassment seriously around here. It’s difficult to say you were sexually harassed,” says Namujuzi Flavia, 30, a shopkeeper in Kabaganda, on the outskirts of Kampala.

“Where would one go? To the police? she adds, laughing.

Victims reporting their experiences are often met with skepticism and disbelief by the authorities. Many cases go unreported, as those who do speak out are often blamed for the abuse.

Eunice Musiime, executive director of Akina Mama wa Afrika, a pan-African women’s organisation, says: “Because of the structural and systemic issues with our criminal justice system, not many women would come out to report cases of sexual violence because they just know that it would not work in their favour.

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“There are very few cases of people who have gone through the process successfully,” she says.

Defendants handcuffed together at a special session on gender-based violence in Kampala high court. Photograph: Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty

In 2018, a female student who accused her lecturer of attempted rape faced a severe backlash at her prestigious university. According to her former lawyer for her, Isaac Ssemakadde, her complaint for her was disregarded by the dean, who disclosed the information and said she would face consequences.

She was ostracized and shamed by university officials and fellow students after the news was leaked. “The culture she was challenging was seen as harmless and inoffensive,” says Ssemakadde. Claims of sexual abuse are quickly turned into narratives of love affairs gone bad, he says, with women accused of seducing their attackers.

When her grades suffered, the student was expelled from the university and disowned by her family, who had high expectations for her. Her case of her was eventually heard by a university committee, which ruled that the university had “an environment of sexual harassment”.

The lecturer’s contract was terminated and the student was offered readmission with full tuition paid.

By then, however, she had been out of university for months, with little to no financial or psychological support. She sued the institution over how it had handled her claim of her and its inadequate redress of her. But, depressed and with no resources, she could not see the case through.

Young girls hold signs saying 'happy women's day'
Children celebrating International Women’s Day at a primary school in Kampala. Ideas of male dominance are ingrained from school, says one feminist activist. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

While the #MeToo movement was full of promise for Ugandan women, it did not take hold, says Patience Akumu.

“We did ride the #MeToo wave a bit, but the movement depended on a society having a public conscience. I think ours is dead as a country because sexual abuse is so normalized,” says the Ugandan feminist.

“People don’t get mad when it happens and there are no consequences,” says Akumu, adding that in Luganda, her mother tongue and the most widely spoken language in the country, there is no word for sexual harassment. Okusobya ku bakazi – “rape of women” – is the closest.

Ideas of male dominance and toxic masculinity are ingrained from school and are hard to shake off in adulthood, even in the justice system, says Akumu. “These are judges who grew up in our families. They probably wonder ‘why is she bothering about a small issue like sexual harassment, can’t she just move on?’

“The judiciary is struggling with human rights cases – not because the law isn’t clear but because they come from, and are aware of, the society we live in.”

Mwesigye says she is skeptical about the country’s ability to deliver justice, arguing that the burden of proof falls too heavily on victims.

“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to speak out unless the law is amended to protect victims because, as it stands, there are so many examples of where victims have not been protected,” she says.

Mwesigye is working with the Africa End Sexual Harassment Initiative, a law reform project based in Nairobi, to change policies, but also wants to create an anonymous reporting platform where women can file complaints about sexual harassment and identify repeat offenders.

She is aware of the challenges of such a site, such as its vulnerability to defamation suits, but says it could stop perpetrators – if only for fear of being outed. “Going through the proper channels doesn’t pay.”

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