Uganda, where is my voice?
“Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).’’
- Ayn Rand
People say I am very outspoken. They do not know it has been a long process finding myself and my voice - a steady journey right from my parents' home and through school and university. I didn't always want to be a lawyer - I loved the idea of being a musician. But sometimes, you look around and realize the world is bigger than your dreams.
Law school was a challenge for me. I was curious to see why people said it was tough. Challenges sometimes become your love and destiny. This is where I found my passion for advocacy of minority rights. This is where I am supposed to be.
My first encounter with activism was on Facebook, in groups and on newspaper articles’ statuses; I would wake up and sleep to commenting. The responses I got through my comments shocked me, but what broke my passive activism cycle was the day BBC Africa asked me to speak on their show. This made me realize the power of speaking up and giving others the courage and hope to fight on.
I learned how actions can bring quick change in a little place called Lokung in Northern Uganda. During an interview process, I met two women in the same predicament of having their husbands share their HIV treatment drugs with them. Within the few days I stayed in this village, I was able to have their husbands agree to go to the clinics and get their own drugs, and this was through getting three housewives in the same village to have a meeting with these men and talk to them collectively.
I have been in political protests. I have had my toes stepped on. I have been sexually assaulted. I have been labeled a lesbian for speaking up for gay rights. It’s more rewarding than challenging to speak up and fight for what is right .The Uganda LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transexual and Intersex) community for instance had their second pride parade and had no interference from the police this August. This was good for the community. It was good to see how perspectives slowly change and this happened largely through rights activism.
It’s very important for people to be able to express themselves freely and speak up on issues that affect them, to criticize their government, because at the end of the day it is the people who make or break democratic societies.
How unfortunate that just when I am starting to become the voice of and for change, the government is allowing the police to put a duct tape over my mouth.
I have been a strong supporter of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party in Uganda. While I am in awe of the role President Museveni’s government has played towards women’s empowerment unlike any other Ugandan regime, assenting to the Public Order Management Bill will mean shutting women like me up - people who are lobbying for equality of women’s rights, regardless of sex, race and social background.
Less than a week ago, you could sense the shock of opposition members as the proposed Public Order Management Bill 2011 was passed. The singing of the iconic “We shall overcome” song overpowered the judgment being read in the parliament. A very popular song that became a key anthem of the African-American civil rights movement, it felt like we were back to that era.
Does it ever end with Uganda?! There were chaos and the hunger for freedom was evident. The Ugandan parliament really passed the Public Order Management Bill 2011. The bill, simply stated, seeks to shut people up and silence my voice as an activist. Who am I after all? I am not a registered organization or trade union. I do not fall in the category of persons legally required to speak, assemble or think freely.
Contentious Clause 8 of the Public Management Bill orders whoever wishes to hold a public meeting or gathering to first seek permission from the police.
The bill says: “A person shall notify the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) in writing about an intended demonstration or public meeting within three days prior to the event. The IGP can also authorize a police officer to issue permission for a public meeting on his behalf on the phone.”
Clause 7 of the POMB states that an organizer shall give notice in writing to the IGP of the intention to hold a public meetings at least 17 days before the meeting. The bill seeks to regulate public meetings and hence halt any form of immediate activism. This means delay in justice and keeping people in the dark about what’s happening
The law states the procedure that must be followed when organizing such meetings or meetings and their legal implications. Failure to comply with this procedure of carrying out organized debates could lead to imprisonment.
The Public Order Management Bill 2011 (POMB) is not something new to the Ugandan Parliament. So as an activist, I am left to wonder how we got to the point where the government is taking our rights away. This development has taught me the importance of sustaining your advocacy - never snooze or your opponent will attack when you least expect it.
Curtailing freedom is nothing new in Uganda. Amid the confusion of debating bills that do not matter significantly, debate on the Public Order Management Bill may have been taken casually. Most people assumed it would be shelved again. Article 92 of the constitution of the Republic of Uganda prohibits parliament to pass any law to alter the decision or judgment of any court. The constitutional court has quashed this bill before; it said “police has no powers granting permission to Ugandans who would want to have an assembly to express their grievances”.
Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) leaders and human rights activists have objected to the bill. The bill is unconstitutional, a UHRC report said, adding that all clauses were in conflict with the principles of a democratic society that allows criticism of government policies and actions.
The constitution of the Republic of Uganda is clear that power belongs to the people. The same constitution provides for freedom of speech and assembly in Article 29 which states that:
29. (1) Every person shall have the right to-
(a) freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media:
(b) freedom of thought, conscience and belief which shall include academic freedom in institutions of learning;
(c) freedom to practice any religion and manifest such practice which shall include the right to belong to and participate in the practices of any religious body or organization in a manner consistent with this Constitution;
(d) freedom to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition; and
(e) freedom of association which shall include the freedom to form and join associations or unions, including trade unions and political and other civic organizations.
This bill affects human rights defenders like me; its goal is contrary to Paragraph 2 of the national objectives and directive principals of state policy of the constitution which says:
“the state shall be based on democratic principles which encourage the active participation of all citizens at all levels in their own governance.’’
I am a law-abiding citizen and activist for minority rights of children and women ,including LGBTI rights. This therefore means that if the president assents to this bill, I will need police permission to carry out any form of demonstrations relating to the work I do. There is no way the police is going to accept an illegal assembly in the name of human rights activism. Following government directives takes more priority for any trained militant over basic rights; it’s what feeds his family. You cannot blame such a man but fight the system.
A luta continua... The struggle continues…
We must bend the rules to move forward despite how compromised the government has become. We shall be here and stay put to keep them in check.
I have many dreams. I acquired yet one more cause in the course of the last two weeks and that is for this bill not to become a law because I deserve the benefit and right to speak my mind for the society. If I make an honest application to the police for a meeting, I should be granted that permission. I envision future of equality for all as far-fetched as it may seem today. I fight for these rights because some laws do not serve the purpose. Either they are found wanting or the good ones have not been implemented properly. People have long lost faith in the judicial system. Therefore, there is an urgent need to start reinforcing these laws – beginning from the grassroots and community levels.
This needs me to speak up at the right time and right now instead of having to wait. All I am asking from my government is to let me raise my voice and speak for human rights.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.