Ugandan-born activist and academic, Dr Stella Nyanzi, was – until recently – languishing in jail. Her ‘crime’ was insulting President Yoweri Museveni and First Lady Janet Kataaha Museveni.
Apart from describing the president as a ‘pair of buttocks’, she has doggedly pursued a very public campaign criticising the presidential couple that has not endeared her to the head of state. Almost inevitably #PairofButtocks generated a healthy amount of Twitter traffic and ensured worldwide publicity.
The final straw for Nyanzi was a failure to deliver on a campaign promise. In February, the First Lady, speaking in her official capacity as Minister of Education, confirmed to the Ugandan parliament that there was no money for sanitary towels for poorer girls in rural areas. As the First Lady is parliamentary representative for one of the most deprived regions of the country, this failure was seen as particularly shocking. Weeks earlier, during the 2016 presidential campaign, she had promised to provide free sanitary pads to those poorer girls.
While many Ugandans speak fondly of the First Lady as ‘Mama Janet’, Nyanzi was having none of it, ridiculing the claim that the government lacked sufficient funds. Without such provision, many girls were missing days of schooling, or else being forced to use impromptu devices including paper and grass rather than sanitary products.
For Nyanzi, this apparent apathy was symptomatic of a long-serving presidential figure who can find resources for matters of personal gain and national security but not for everyday issues that matter to girls and women. The Museveni administration pumped money into a conflict against a terror organisation (the Lord’s Resistance Army) in the north of the country and involved itself in regional conflicts in central Africa. President Museveni has been in power since 1986 and, for many foreign observers, is no longer emblematic of a new generation of democratically elected leaders. Instead, he is more likely to be represented as just another ‘strong man’ of African politics who is reluctant to cede power (he won an election in 2016 against a backdrop of accusations of vote rigging and intimidation).
When it comes to gender and matters of sexuality, there is often an unwillingness to discuss either sex education or accept that women can be critics of government. The net result is that many girls in Uganda are not being provided with appropriate information and support.
Homosexuality is outlawed in Uganda. Campaigners such as Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera have been incredibly forthright and brave in campaigning for LGBT rights in a country where homophobia is rife. Nabagesera has spoken of her experiences of being a university student, being made to sign agreements that she would stop dressing in ‘boy’s clothes’ and being banned from coming within a hundred metres of female dormitories.
Sanitary towels and homophobia reveal something important about domestic Ugandan politics. Poor, young girls are deterred from attending school on a regular basis, while lesbian and gay people are deterred from occupying public space for fear of being subject to homophobic attacks. The legal system of Uganda has been used by critics of both Nyanzi and Nabagesera to silence these outspoken women and this reminds us that when we consider terms like ‘national security’ we are mindful that some citizens might well be rendered insecure and vulnerable as a consequence of law and prejudice.
The campaigning for sanitary towel provision is showing no signs of fading from the public scene. Nyanzi and her supporters have crowd-sourced funds and within weeks of a public campaign, millions of towels were made available for distribution to those poorer communities.
While campaigning, Nyanzi faced charges of moral decadence and bringing the presidential office into disrepute. The 2011 Computer Misuse Act was cited in the process because she stood accused of ‘offensive communication’ when she posited the suggestion that the Ugandan president was little more than a ‘pair of buttocks’. International legal observers and campaigners accused the Ugandan government of a witch-hunt and condemned the decision to imprison Nyanzi. Her release on bail came only as a result of a threat of her health.
Beyond Uganda, it is also notable that the sanitary towel has been integral to protesting. In 2016, as part of International Women’s Day, activists used sanitary towels to protest against gender discrimination, patriarchy, and taboos around menstruation. Protestors hung their bras and wrote protest notes on sanitary towels on trees during a Women’s March on Washington DC in January 2017.
Elsewhere in the world, campaigners in India have made progress in highlighting the extraordinary lengths many girls and women are having to go to in order to deal with an absence of cheap and hygienic sanitary towels. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged in 2014 that sanitary towels and a lack of adequate toilet facilities were pressing issues for millions of Indian girls and women.
For as long as there is a global tradition of condemning outspoken and controversial women as ‘mad and bad’, female activists will continue to use their bodies, voices and intimate objects such as sanitary towels to campaign for change and speak back against those who wish to control women’s bodies and sexuality.
This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.