What exactly is the women’s crime? Democracy? Autonomy?

Ingrid Turinawe

In Kampala yesterday, Ingrid Turinawe and eleven other women activists were placed under `preventive arrest.’ Preventive arrest means the person arrested hasn’t actually done anything wrong … but might. What was the imminent danger posed by Turinawe and her sisters? Some would say a petition, others might say illegally approaching Parliament, and still others would say, democracy. Yet again, Ingrid Turinawe has been arrested for wanting to take that long walk to democracy.

The story, in a nutshell, is this. A hundred or so Forum for Democratic Change women activists gathered at the FDC headquarters. They wanted to write and present a petition to Parliament protesting new, higher taxes on water and kerosene. Water and kerosene are women’s issues, in Uganda as everywhere else in the world. That’s it. That’s the whole present and imminent danger. A women’s petition to Parliament. The police heard of the meeting, surrounded the building, forced their way, selected and arrested 12 of the women, including Ingrid Turinawe, head of the FDC Women’s League, and Anna Adeke Ebaju, Makerere University Guild President.

As of this morning, five of the women are still being held.

What exactly is the women’s crime that is being prevented? Democracy? Autonomy?

The same question is being asked in Harare, where, on the cusp of today’s elections, dozens of women were rounded up and charged with prostitution. The women’s initial `crime’ was ostensibly `loitering’, which simply means being a woman on the street. This time, the manly cleansing of the public spaces was dubbed “Operation Zvanyanya.” Operation It’s Too Much.

It’s too much … what?

Zimbabwean feminist activist Judith Chiyangwa went to the places where the women had been arrested and she found loads of men, hanging out on the streets, selling, chatting, being. They weren’t arrested.

Too much … what? Too many women in one room in Kampala? Too many individual women on the streets in Harare? Too many women being women, demanding and creating oppositional, autonomous, independent, and even democratic women’s spaces?

(Photo Credit: Pearl Posts)

Ingrid Turinawe’s Long Walk to Work … and Democracy

The choir at Luzira women’s prison

Last week, Ingrid Turinawe, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Women’s League, in Uganda, was sent to the infamous Luzira Prison.

Everywhere one looks, there are “infamous” prisons. For the United States, for example, Guantánamo, with its regime of torture and its regimen of violence, is but the tip of a national iceberg. Every country has at least one. In Uganda, it’s Luzira Prison.

Six years ago, two-thirds of Uganda’s then18,000 prisoners were awaiting trial. Some had been caged for years, for no reason other than not being able to post bond… or because, in the global security climate, they have been deemed `terrorists’, and so … stay in prison for years, without every being charged.

Of the 18,000, prisoners, 5,000 were in Luzira, built in the 1950’s, designed for a capacity of … 500. That’s ten people for every one person’s space. For years. And those were the good times. Last year, the prison system reported over 30,000 prisoners, of whom a little over 1,000 were women. In March 2010, Luzira Upper was at 366 percent of approved capacity; Luzira Women’s at 357 percent. The situation is only expected to worsen over the next decade.

What does overcrowding mean? Inadequate food, inadequate water, inadequate clothes, blankets, mattresses. Most prisoners sleep on the bare floor. The only prison in the entire system that has blankets is Luzira Women’s Prison. The result? Reports estimate that 10% of inmates die in prison, primarily due to malnutrition and AIDs, but really due to lack of this, inadequate that, and none of essential those.

Along with overcrowding, use of isolation cells as “persuasion” is fairly common, in both Luzira Upper and Luzira Women’s Prisons. For pregnant women prisoners, prenatal care is horrible and postnatal care is worse. For prisoners living with mental or psychosocial disabilities, their options are to languish or perish while the State dithers. Many of these prisoners are in Luzira. The same holds for many juveniles held in Luzira adult facilities and awaiting some sort of decision. The same holds for those on Luzira’s death row, where perhaps as many as 25% are innocent, but hey. For sex workers the situation is, at best, dire. For those accused of “homosexuality” … worse.

And of course the open secret of Luzira is the torture of political prisoners, covered by the fog of anti-terrorism. One woman was held incommunicado for six months, during which she was beaten senseless. Then she was taken to Luzira, for a month, before being released on bail. Her crime? Being married to a person of interest. Another woman was abducted by rebels, as a girl. When she was captured, by the army, she was sent, finally, to Luzira, where she applied for amnesty. After seven months, she was released, without amnesty, without a trial and with charges dropped. Nevertheless, she is required to report to the equivalent of a parole officer once a month … in perpetuity.

In Uganda, if one is charged, or suspected, of “treason or terrorism”, Luzira is in the cards.

So, Ingrid Turinawe was sent to Luzira. Why? She has been charged with treason. Because she participated in and led the “walk to work” protests and campaign, now in its second phase. Because she said something’s rotten in the state of Uganda. Because she proposed that democracy, now, is both required and possible … now. Of course, there’s barely a mention of Turinawe, or of the Walk to Work campaign, in the western press, but what else is new? As you read of the Occupy movements, the Indignados, the Uncut movements, the ongoing Arab Spring and Chile Autumn, and all the other manifestations, and as you read of the police “over-reaction”, which is always merely following orders, remember the Ugandans who, since last year, have been Walking to Work and think of Ingrid Turinawe, in Luzira Prison… for the treason of dreaming democracy.


(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form and under different title, here: http://africasacountry.com/2011/10/31/ugandas-guantanamo/)


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Clifford Chance)