Published On: Fri, Sep 10th, 2021

How We Won: the Ugandan Feminists Who Overturned an Anti-Porn Law

After six years of struggle, feminist campaigners in Uganda have overturned a law designed to criminalise pornography, but which ended up criminalising women’s sexuality.

The 2014 Anti-Pornography Act (APA) criminalised any activity deemed pornographic – which included “any representation” of “explicit sexual activities” or “sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement”. The law carried a maximum fine of almost USD$ 3,000, or up to 10 years in prison.

Dubbed the “miniskirt law”, after Uganda’s former ethics and integrity minister Simon Lokodo commented that women wearing revealing clothes would be arrested, the law, though nominally intended to protect women and children, formed part of a misogynistic, homophobic crusade by Christian groups funded by US-based evangelical churches. It was signed into law in 2014 as part of a wave of sexually repressive legislation, including the now nullified Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), which outlawed gay sex (for which Lokodo, a former Catholic priest, supports the death penalty).

Since its introduction, the law has primarily targeted women, rather than porn producers. The state has repeatedly made examples of women public figures, including the singer Jemimah Kansiime, who was prosecuted in 2015 for making a sexual music video, and the model Judith Heard, who was arrested in 2018 after her naked images were shared online without her consent.

Nor is it only state agents who have enforced the law; individual actors have too – and often violently. In 2014, feminist activist and writer Patience Akumu was groped on the streets of Kampala for wearing a skirt that fell above her knees. “Suddenly men got this power from parliament deliberating on women’s bodies,” says Rosebell Kagumire, the editor of African Feminism. “Women were being undressed on the street because their skirts were deemed too short.”

But as swift as the crackdown was, so was the resistance to it. Ugandan women fought the APA “from the word go”, says Kagumire.

Fighting back. 

When the law was passed in 2014, nine petitioners, organisations and individuals, began coordinating a legal challenge – among them, the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention, and the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa. The petitioners argued that the act was unconstitutional in its vagueness, breadth and contravention of various human rights, including the right to privacy; freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and freedom of expression.

This resistance wasn’t “choreographed”, explains Susan Baluka, a lawyer who works with WONETHA, but a case of multiple actors – women’s rights groups, lawyers, activists and journalists – “deciding to play whatever role they could in helping to get this law off the books”. While some challenged the law through the courts, others sought to maintain a visible resistance on the streets. When women experienced violence linked to the law – such as being attacked for wearing skirts, or being forced to undress in public by police – activists staged protests. In February 2014, 200 women gathered in Kampala in resistance to such abuse. “We were using these moments to say, ‘this law needs to go’,” says Kagumire.

Meanwhile, others were doing the less visible work of consciousness-raising. Groups such as WONETHA planned political education projects with marginalised groups especially at risk from the APA, such as sex workers, aiming to increase awareness around human rights violations and options for legal support. Akumu set up a Facebook page, End Miniskirt Harassment, to give women a space to share experiences of abuse related to the APA.

Baluka says the most significant challenge the movement faced was “divisions in the women’s movement”. Some groups, which “identify themselves as feminists”, did not support the campaign, she says, because they believed the law was “well within the objectives of promoting a moral society”. These ideological differences – between women who want to see an end to the state legislating on women’s bodily autonomy, and those who believe the law was justified on religious grounds – were “heartbreaking”, she says, and at times decreased the campaign’s “headway”, for example by ensuring some influential women’s rights organisations refused to be among the petitioners.

The legal challenge, however, was the “main intervention” and “most effective tactic” employed by activists, says Baluka. Campaigners consistently framed the law as unconstitutional, which the court conceded. “It is obvious that a law that criminalises pornography violates several constitutionally guaranteed rights,” said judge Elizabeth Musoke said in her ruling, “not least the freedom of expression, and the right to privacy”.

For Baluka, the judgement is “quite…progressive”. Central to this, she says, was the fact that Musoke asked “the right questions” – including around the meaning of pornography and the dangers of a government litigating on consenting adults’ bodies and lives. Ultimately, says Kagumire, the court was “reflective”, and publicly “rejected this kind of moralising” on women’s bodies and sexualities.

A greater war.

With the APA off the statute books, activists are seeking to repeat their success with the Sexual Offences Bill, which passed in May of this year. The law – reinscribing colonial-era legislation – further criminalises consensual sex acts that go against the “order of nature”, including same-sex sexual relationships and sex work, and provides the basis for discrimination based on HIV status. 

Indeed, there is a “greater war” to be fought, explains Baluka, for bodily autonomy against “a patriarchal, moral and religious society.

“Policing of women’s bodies is one of the pertinent attributes and features of a patriarchal society,” she adds, which is why “it was very important for us as feminists to come out and challenge this law”. 

Kagumire agrees, saying the ruling is especially important “at a time when [African] countries [including Uganda] are seeing religious fundamentalism impacting lawmaking”. According to an investigation by openDemocracy, US Christian groups known for undermining LGBT rights and sexual and reproductive health initiatives spent at least $ 54m in Africa. In Uganda alone, the Fellowship Foundation – a US religious group whose Ugandan representative David Bahati wrote the AHA – has spent more than $ 20m.

What’s more, the scrapping of the APA is also a victory for the ongoing anti-colonial struggle, adds Kagumire. The anti-sex laws that have been instituted recently have their roots in colonial-era legislation, which imported state-led sexual repression to African countries. Today, feminist and queer resistance in Africa contends with fundamentalist Christian lobbyists and politicians supported and funded by US evangelical missionaries, seeking to promote their misogynistic and queerphobic ‘family values’ agenda. 

Beyond this latest victory, says Kagumire, is “the greater fight is decolonising our laws”, resisting oppressive moral codes originally “implanted in our lives by colonialism”, and fighting for laws that “are representative of the actual lived realities of our people”.

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

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