Tag: women’s rights

Zimbabwe: State paternalism and the policing of women’s bodies

Recently, a Kenyan friend and I had a long conversation about the objectification of women’s bodies in our respective countries, and the role of popular culture therein. As with all cultural industries, there are many avenues for such sexist expressions. But we eventually got stuck on the music sector, and two offerings in particular.

Hers was a song, Fundamentals, by a Kenyan musician known as Ken wa Maria. In the song, he points at the woman he is cuddling up to – even pointing to her nether regions at some point – and states quite authoritatively:

“These are the things,

These are my things,

These are your things,

These are the fundamentals.”

Apparently her body and its composite elements are “the things”, and these things are his before they are hers, or anyone else’s. These are the fundamentals!

In turn, I shared a Zimbabwean song from the late 90s. Called Special Meat (need I really say more?!), the singer engages in Job-like wailing as he exhorts the listener to help him with locating some ‘special meat’. Yes, special meat, like the kind you go into a butchery to buy.

There is a hilarity about these songs. As we watched and shared them online, we couldn’t help but laugh; the sort of laugh that finds these artefacts ridiculous and incomprehensible, and yet pervasively and dangerously catchy.

I am thinking of this interaction for a few reasons. Chief among them being an equally ridiculous and incomprehensible public notice featured in one of Zimbabwe’s main newspapers last week.

Nestled on the last page of the business section of The Herald of Wednesday March 26  is a notice – from the Registrar General  – which advises that there are “… some foreigners particularly Asians who masquerade as Zimbabweans whilst holding fraudulently acquired Zimbabwean documents…” and that “Some of them contract marriages with our local women.” Members of the public are therefore duly advised to “thoroughly scrutinize documents of all foreigners who are intending to marry Zimbabwean women”. Chiefs and village heads are also called upon to be “extremely vigilant”.

(Pic: Fungai Machirori)
(Pic: Fungai Machirori)

The xenophobic sentiment is enough to rile one up. But the authority of possession in referring to Zimbabwe’s women as a commodity of the state is disparaging and infuriating, to say the least.

The same Registrar General’s office, with Tobaiwa Mudede at its helm, has been the cause of much consternation to Zimbabwean mothers. The Guardianship of Minors Act, a piece of legislation granting guardianship rights and decision-making authority to a child’s father, has seen many mothers struggle to get basic documentation, such as passports, for their children owing to the fact that the Registrar General and his office have been known to make demands that the child’s father be physically present to sign accompanying forms on behalf of the child. A mother’s authority has not been deemed adequate.

The adoption of Zimbabwe’s new Constitution, however, now prohibits discrimination between men and women in terms of guardianship of children. Ironically, voting in this constitutional process took place a year ago in March. And yet a year later, we have notices from the same Registrar’s office reminding us that women are incapable of decision-making of any sort and are in desperate need of monitoring and surveillance; for our own good, of course.

This is not new, however. Zimbabwe’s Legal Age of Majority Act, passed into law in 1982, meant that for two years after Zimbabwe’s independence, women over the age of 18 were regarded as minors in issues such voting and ownership of property. In the same era, an operation to clear the streets of the capital city, Harare, of sex workers and vagrants was brought into force by the state. During this period, the government invoked emergency powers to detain women deemed to be ‘suspicious’’  At that time, over 6 000 women, many of whom were not part of the target group (for example, teachers, nurses and domestic workers), are thought to have been detained and/or arrested.

Walking in the suburb of the Avenues, sometimes nicknamed the red light district of Harare, after dark often still earns a woman an encounter with the police. And walking through town in a mini skirt – or any other form of clothing deemed inappropriate – still leads to women being publicly undressed and heckled.

State control is still set to full volume regardless of the raft of laws that seem to suggest otherwise.

Landmark ruling
The second reason I think of my interaction with my Kenyan friend is Mildred Mapingure who, in a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe last week, has had her appeal for compensation for a 2006 rape – that resulted in the birth of a child – partially allowed.

Mapingure is said to have sought emergency contraception within 72 hours of the rape to prevent pregnancy. The police, however, delayed her application.  Furthermore, the doctor overseeing the rape case is reported to have been unclear about the difference between a termination of pregnancy and emergency contraception.

While Mapingure’s pregnancy could have been avoided altogether, continual mishandling of her case meant that she was unable to have a medical abortion which is supposed to be provided for victims of rape as per the nation’s Termination of Pregnancy Act.

Indeed, Mapingure’s case is a watershed in the fight for justice, but it is also a chilling reminder of how the state continues to fail women. Whatever peace Mapingure may have made with the ordeal she has had to endure, the fact remains that the state’s lack of urgency and professionalism deprived this women governance over her body, and her future.

With international women’s month coming to an end yesterday, I am angered by the state’s continuing inability to handle women’s issues with the respect and fairness that they deserve.

These instances show a lack of confidence in women’s abilities to make reasoned decisions about their lives and aspirations, orienting our role in society to that of children. From the state and its paternalism to the sexist but body-jolting music we listen to, women are continually relegated to being viewed as objects and subjects.

April dawns today. On April 18, Zimbabwe clocks another year of independence.

Whose independence it is not, though, remains quite clear.

Fungai Machirori is a blogger, editor, poet and researcher. She runs Zimbabwe’s first web-based platform for womenHer Zimbabweand is an advocate for using social media for consciousness-building among Zimbabweans. Connect with her on Twitter

We need to talk about sex in Uganda

I was sexually abused by my aunt as a child. When I tried telling my mother about it, she said that there are some things that people do not speak of, ever. She refused to talk about my experience again.

One day I saw strange blood stains in our toilet and ran to tell her that somebody was horribly hurt. She was embarrassed and told me to shut up. I could not for the life of me imagine why.

Everything fell into place six years later. She called me to her bedroom, locked the door and whispered to me that someday I too would have blood flowing out of my… my … my … you know what! I was horrified that my mother was tackling a topic she had spent her entire life running away from.

My mum always wanted the best for me, but she did not always know what the definition of best entailed. She, like many African women, lived under the heavy yoke of society. She believed every taboo, every norm, and preached it me, her only daughter. To date, she cannot say the word ‘sex’ out loud. I told her I would teach my daughter to call her vagina a vagina and not “susu” or “kuku”, and she retorted that she’d like to put me across her thighs and spank me.

I grew up, finished school and university and fiercely questioned some of her ideas.It helped that I had pursued a degree in law and then chose to to be a journalist. Around this time, I realised that what my aunt did to me was not really my fault. Women’s rights activists I spoke to and admired told me she could still serve jail time for it. I don’t wish for her to go to jail, but I do worry about other children she has contact with. Does she violate them too?

Last year I decided to tell my story while working as a journalist at The Observer, a national paper. It was a difficult decision. I knew it would earn me the wrath of my entire family, who would of course ask: “Why did you choose to tell our private matters to the public?”

I did not have the guts to use my real identity. I told it in third person, changed names and locations and then submitted the piece to my editors who had earlier asked: “Do women actually molest?”

My story caused an uncomfortable stir in the newsroom. People were not comfortable talking about these “issues”. Tempers flared and ideas were rebuffed but I persisted.

My story was a personal, honest account, but I included hard facts: according to various research, women are perpetrators in up to 40% of child molestation cases. I explained that, as is the case with sexual abuse by males, these women are usually trusted adults – teachers, religious leaders, close relatives, nannies who you would trust with your life. And that this betrayal has far-reaching psychological consequences.

Despite this, my colleagues were skeptical. “This story is not credible!” our chief reporter told me. “You have to call the woman who molested you and get her side of the story.”

How was I supposed to call my aunt and ask her: “Is it true you molested me?”

That marked the end of my attempt to tell my story. I simply deleted it and moved on to less daunting assignments. As a reporter interested in sex and sexuality, there was an unimaginable amount of disbelief and misinformation I encountered during my work:  There are no homosexuals, intersex people must have done something to deserve it, a man cannot rape his wife, raped women enjoy it … the rhetoric was and still is endless! It made me think of how many more voices like mine had been silenced – not just by anxious mothers but by political, religious and social institutions more concerned about flimsy moral values than the wellbeing of citizens.


Uganda has been in the spotlight recently for two pieces of draft legislation directly affecting women. One, the Marriage and Divorce Bill, first tabled in 1964, sought to give women and men equal rights in marriage. After 49 years of debate, it was shot down in Parliament last month, not for its lack of substance but rather for its apparent disruption of the moral fabric of society. President Museveni wasted no time attacking women groups and civil society, insisting the Bill was disrespectful to our culture.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

Moralist and pastor Martin Ssempa, speaking on radio at the peak of marriage Bill debate, said that women who want the legislation passed are merely “angry feminists seeking revenge on men”. He said that these women are falsely accusing men of raping them and causing them to get fistulas; that marriage will be perfect provided Parliament leaves it to God.

Ideas like his were welcomed by politicians only interested in votes, and opposition to the marriage Bill simply gripped the entire nation.

“That Bill should not be passed,” opined my hairdresser. “They want men to stop marrying us for fear that we shall take their property. In fact a law like this will encourage men to become homosexuals.”

Some people say that the Bill failed because it touches on property – men’s property. But the residents of Mpererwe, a low cost suburb I call home, disagree. Here, the men put their wives in rented mizigo (one-room houses with questionable sanitation). Most of the men ride boda bodas owned by rich bosses, others sell in the nearby market or do casual work in town. The Mpererwe woman would ask: “What property are you talking about?”

While history may have blessed some men with real property, the vast majority of Uganda men are poor, struggling alongside their women.

The real cause of the demise of the marriage Bill is not property – it  is the fact that it dares to question a man’s sexual domain.

Moralists want everything sexy covered up. Encouraged by the fall of the marriage Bill, the anti-pornography Bill was recently resurrected after it was first proposed and abandoned in 2011. This time, miniskirt-wearing feminists would be dealt with once and for all; thrown into jail for wearing dresses above their knees.

Judging from the way the populace rejected the marriage Bill, it is easy to see why Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo thinks that his proposed anti-pornography Bill will protect what the marriage Bill sought to disrupt.

Lokodo is a wise man who realises that Uganda is not a good place to simply throw around the sex discourse. President Museveni has declared that he does not hold his wife’s hand or kiss her in public, and that Ugandans should emulate this. The consensus, at least per Lokodo, is that everyone must have sex missionary style with a partner of the opposite sex. Uganda’s leaders know that the only time you should talk about sex in Uganda is when you are telling errant women to cover up their sexiness lest they distract men in their noble quest to save this nation. When it comes to sexual abuse, sex education, girls’ bodily changes, domestic violence, marital rape, contraception and other issues directly affecting the lives of women, the silence is ominous. This needs to change.

Patience Akumu is a features writer at The Observer in Uganda. Her major focus is human rights, particularly LGBTI rights and women’s rights. She is the winner of the 2013 David Astor Journalism Award.

Pornography according to Simon Lokodo

I have just read the proposed anti-pornography Bill that is currently before the Ugandan Parliament. This Bill was brought soon after MPs stifled debate on the Marriage and Divorce Bill, which tackles the ambiguity of existing laws on women owning property.

Ethics and integrity minister Simon Lokodo’s anti-pornography Bill however doesn’t just threaten women; it attacks press freedom too. The media is portraying the Bill as a miniskirt law but if passed it will have far-reaching consequences on press freedom, freedom of expression, internet freedom, and the right to privacy and culture.

According to the Bill:

Pornography means any cultural practice, radio or television programme, writing, publication, advertisement, broadcast, upload on internet, display, entertainment, music, dance, picture, audio, video recording, show, exhibition or any combination of the preceeding that depicts [for now I concentrate on just this clause] sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks and genitalia.

Read the full text of the Bill here.

I am also angered and saddened by the comments Lokodo made. He said:

Any attire which exposes intimate parts of the human body, especially areas that are of erotic function, are outlawed. Anything above the knee is outlawed. If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her.


Men are normally not the object of attraction; they are the ones who are provoked. They can go bare-chested on the beach, but would you allow your daughter to go bare-chested?

His comments cannot be understood in any way other than being an outright attack on women and their sexuality, their freedom of expression and their right to live the way the wish. Lokodo permits attacks on women and blames sexual violence on women victims. His comments are part of wide efforts to politicise women’s dressing and add to the obsession with women’s sexuality.

According to the Bill, “Pornography fuels sexual crimes against women and children.”

I am moved to ask why do we have incidents of rape even in the most remote corners of our country? Did the Ugandan army watch porn before they raped several women and men during the northern Uganda war? Do all men that defile more than 600 children a year in Uganda watch pornography? Do all of the more than 500 women who report being raped to the police every year wear miniskirts? Do hundreds of uncles and fathers that molest young girls in their families watch pornography?  This is just insulting the dignity of victims of sexual violence.

We have more urgent, pressing needs: young Ugandans need jobs; 16 women die everyday in my country due to preventable pregnancy-related complications; Lokodo and his fellow ministers every day dig deeper into our pockets, stealing our hard-earned money. Thousands of girls do not complete primary education even with the faulty UPE system in place. But Lokodo and the regime he represents won’t tackle these challenges. What is more immoral than distracting our country from debating these issues?

It is ironic that this is a Bill proposed by a minister who hails from Karamoja, a region where people are free in their nakedness. The pastoralist communities are known to roam wearing as little clothing as possible. They are free in their culture. His proposed Bill would be an indictment to such ethnic groups.

If Lokodo gets his way in Parliament, photos like mine below could earn a person who publishes them imprisonment not exceeding 10 years or a fine of 10-million shillings, or both. This is pornography according to Lokodo:




And if you viewed these “pornographic” photos, you too could be imprisoned.

Rosebell Kagumire is a Ugandan multimedia journalist working on media, women, peace and conflict issues. She is co-ordinator of Africans Act For Africa. Visit her blog and connect with her on Twitter.