Threats. Physical and sexual violence. Harassment of one’s children. Gossip and slander intended to damage one’s reputation. In Uganda, human rights activists experience these kinds of attacks on a daily basis. According to Brenda Kugonza, Director of the Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDN-U), Uganda is an extremely patriarchal society, with deeply rooted ideas of male dominance and female subservience.
‘As soon as you move away from the caring, domestic role assigned to women and speak out in the public domain, it becomes dangerous. Then you are confronted with physical, verbal, and emotional attacks. Activists are accused of ‘promoting immorality’, being too loud, destroying families, being baby-haters, or neglecting their care duties to family and community. Police officers raid their homes and offices. Their children are followed. They are portrayed as terrorists. This is how they try to silence women who speak out.’ – Brenda Kugonza (Director) Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda
In 2017, WHRDN-U was founded to systematically address these injustices. Brenda explains: ‘That year, we decided that we had to encourage mutual solidarity between activists from different movements. Because when, for example, LGBTQI activists were attacked, activists from the Indigenous movement, or the trade union movement, did nothing. But the next time, they were the ones being attacked. We felt this had to change. So we developed closer relationships with each other. We reflected and cried together. We realised that we all face the same kinds of challenges. With our network, we stand up for the safety and protection of activists, amplify their voices, and fight for the recognition of the important work they do.’
WHRDN-U unites women activists from different movements and regions in Uganda, such as factory workers who push for fair wages, women who denounce the harmful practices of oil and mining companies, LBTQI activists, Indigenous women leaders who defend land and water, women campaigning against female genital cutting and other gender-based violence, sex worker activists, and female journalists. ‘All this work is risky,’ says Brenda. ‘These women step on a lot of people’s toes.’ WHRDN-U facilitates the mutual exchange of experiences and strategies. The network reacts immediately if there are attacks or threats against activists, to make this violence visible and put it on the agenda, and to get the women concerned out of danger. It also teaches groups how to make risk assessments and trains activists in self-defence, and how to avoid exhaustion and burnout.
In addition, the network lobbies for improvement of the Ugandan Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill, which does not explicitly recognise gender as a category. They have already succeeded in getting the term ‘genderbased violence’ included in the bill. The network is also involved in the review process of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. ‘Uganda signed this treaty, but is not adhering to its obligations. It is fantastic, of course, that we can now proclaim our message in the international community, but we are still often not listened to in our own country,’ explains Brenda. ‘Our participation in international fora also has a protective effect, because the government cannot attack us now.’ This is important, because repression of human rights activists in Uganda is growing. ‘The regime is rapidly introducing restrictive laws on civil rights, [such as] the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. Anti-terrorism legislation, the Computer Misuse Act, the new NGO Act: they are all being used to thwart activists and activist organisations like the ones in our network.’
Despite the continuing and even increasing pressure on human rights activists, Brenda also sees promising developments. ‘The good work these activists do in defence of human rights is being seen more and more. More players in mainstream civil society, as well as politicians and policymakers, are aware of their existence and the dangers they face. Cases of violence against activists are more often reported. We have also set up a local support system, partly with financial and strategic support from Mama Cash, so that human rights defenders can help each other. We see that these regional networks really act as a mechanism of protection. And we have inspired activists in Malawi and Tanzania to set up a network similar to ours. We now act as mentors to them. It’s hopeful to see human rights activists organising and collaborating in more and more African countries.