In the end, the compromise came to nothing. When the law was passed on Monday, male MPs fought successfully to drop the clause on the withdrawal of consent, while retaining the homophobic, anti-sex worker and victim-blaming provisions.
Indeed, the new law tightens the ban on same-sex relations. The existing prohibition did not explicitly ban homosexuality; it depended on same-sex relations being interpreted as acts that are “contrary to the order of nature”. The new definition is specific: it is “a ban on a sexual act between persons of the same gender”.
Divided we fall
The women parliamentarians who championed the new bill might have been hoping that they could empower ‘good’ women by distinguishing them from LGBTQI people and ‘bad girls’ who take sexy pictures of themselves. But they were in for a surprise – they came up against the same opposition that these other groups face.
The clause on withdrawal of consent, for instance, was attacked by MP David Bahati, author of Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became law in 2014 but was later annulled by the country’s Constitutional Court on technical grounds. Bahati argued that the proposed clause was a threat to “African marriage”.
The women’s rights activists who supported the bill chose to throw sex workers and sexual minorities under the bus, as it were, in an attempt to bargain with a patriarchal parliament. But under patriarchal politics, only men are safe.
Parliament rejected the key element of consent, the most basic expression of women’s bodily autonomy. If a “sexual offences” bill fails to secure the meaning of consent, what’s the point of it?
Cis or trans, straight or queer, good girl or sex worker, passive victim or otherwise, none of us will ever be ‘proper’ enough to be ‘one of the boys’. Intersectionality demands that we understand the oppression faced by different groups and then unite against the system that oppresses us. We can’t trade some of us away to secure the others.
What’s more, sex workers and LGBTQI people take part in civil society, including electoral politics – and, in particular, in campaigns for women candidates. It is only fair, then, that the leaders they elect stop speaking only for ‘acceptable’ kinds of people. ‘Proper women’ politics is not the answer. In fact, it’s the problem – it’s why we have been stuck in the same bad place for decades.
How to widen resistance
The Ugandan women’s movement has made considerable strides for us all. It secured constitutional quotas and other affirmative action for diversity in electoral politics, as well as more inclusion in education and other areas of society. Now, it must learn from its less lauded peers.
Activists from queer and sex worker communities challenge sexual moralising. They push us all to accept that sexuality is diverse, as are sexual needs and how they are met – even in a place like Uganda.
Despite a truly hostile environment over the past two decades, LGBT rights activists have achieved some hard-won successes, including court rulings in favour of their right to a fair hearing and right to privacy. We would all do better if we emulated them.
UN Women and other donors should move away from ‘proper women’ politics to intersectional feminism. The latest statistics from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) show that a mere 1% of all gender-focused aid went to feminist movements. The resources are skewed in favour of the kind of tick-box “gender-sensitive” work that results in homophobic, anti-sex worker and victim-blaming outcomes – just like the law Uganda’s women parliamentarians are congratulating themselves for passing.Print