Uganda protects women to death

This past Tuesday Uganda’s Parliament passed something called the HIV Prevention and Management Bill. The law will not prevent the transmission of HIV. Everyone knows this. It will worsen the lives of all living with HIV. It will threaten the lives of LGBTIQ persons, and in Uganda, gay and lesbian identity is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not about being gay; it’s about being called gay. This law will have particular and catastrophic effect on women.

The law institutes mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners. Ostensibly it’s meant to `protect’ women and younger girls whose sexual partners conceal that they have Aids or are HIV-positive. It doesn’t protect women and girls. It endangers them.

The law also allows doctors to reveal the HIV status of those who have been tested. In Uganda, where HIV prevalence is higher among women and much higher among younger women, activists argue, the combination of mandatory testing and sharing of information is an invitation to domestic violence and even murder, at the hands of a partner who claims the woman brought the virus into the home.

That’s what protecting women looks like.

According to the International Community of Women Living with HIV, Eastern Africa: “The passage of the HIV Prevention and AIDS Control Bill represents a dangerous backslide in Uganda’s efforts to respond to HIV. While the bill may have been intended to facilitate and improve the HIV response in Uganda, the bill contains many poorly conceived and fear-induced provisions that have no place in a public health and human-rights-based response to HIV. As passed, this bill will actually weaken Uganda’s HIV prevention efforts and will have a detrimental and disproportionate impact on the rights of women and girls and in particular women living with HIV.”

Long-term HIV activist Milly Katana put it more succinctly: “All I can say now is doomsday has landed on all the people of Uganda. You will see fewer and fewer people testing.”

Margaret Happy, the Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Officer of the International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa, agrees: “Uganda is already facing a serious backslide from its early advances in responding to HIV, Uganda is currently one of three African countries experiencing increases in their HIV prevalence rates previously from 6.5% to 7.3 %. The passages of this Bill will only serve to increase this backslide and the President must save Uganda from this backlash.” Lillian Mworeko, Regional Coordinator of the ICW Eastern Africa, adds that the legislators “chose to act out of fear and unfounded hysteria.”

“For Uganda to address its HIV epidemic effectively, it needs to partner with people living with HIV, not blame them, criminalize them, and exclude them from policy making. The president should not sign this bill and instead ensure a rights-based approach, recognizing that people living with HIV will prevent transmission if they are empowered and supported,” said Dorah Kiconco, executive director of Uganda Network on Law, Ethics & HIV/AIDS.

Dr Lydia Mungherera, of TASO, The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), explains: “This clause is taking us back centuries when all the progress we have made in fighting this pandemic is going to be ruled out. They are criminalizing people who are having consensual sex.”

Finally, Dianah Nanjeho, from UGANET, Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS warns that the bill will force HIV positive people, and especially women, underground: “The only path by which someone gets onto treatment is by taking a HIV test. People who don’t know their status are going to shun the health system and say ‘look I can’t go to take a HIV test because the results are going to be displayed in court some day. We will have someone who is HIV positive in the docks but without any justice system to fend for them.”

In every way, this Bill attacks women, and women know this. But Museveni will almost undoubtedly sign the Bill into law. Why? ““Because he knows the voters are going to like this bill it will be popular with him.” Who cares about science? Who cares about the knowledge of those, largely women, who have toiled in the fields for decades and dedicated their lives? Most importantly, who cares about the women? Really, all one must do is claim that protecting women is one’s goal, and it’s all good.


(Photo Credit: ICWEA)

Instead of Women’s Day, What About Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?


In South Africa, August 9 is National Women’s Day, and August is Women’s Month. This August, the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, a South African women’s rights and well-being organization has a simple and direct question for everyone, “So just how real are women’s rights?”

They began, publically, to answer that question yesterday, August 11, with a new report, “The Right & The Real: A Shadow Report Analysing Selected Government Departments’ Implementation of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act and 2007 Sexual Offences Act”. On one hand, the answer paints a dismal picture. Only 8% of police stations meet their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act. Compliance would include helping a victim to find shelter and obtain medical assistance, serving notice on an abuser to appear in court, arresting an abuser who breaks a protection order, and, critically, keeping records of domestic violence. Failure to comply means misconduct, and should result in various forms of sanction and punishment. It hasn’t. Police stations ignore their responsibilities with impunity.

In 2007, 57% of police stations were compliant. Now … less than 8%. That’s not a drop, not even a steep drop. That’s a nose dive.

The report focuses on the failure of the South African Police Services and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (which includes National Prosecuting Authority), as well as the Departments of Health, Social Development and Correctional Services. The press has covered this failure as a failure to protect women and women’s rights, which it certainly is.

But Tshwaranang’s analysis goes far beyond the failure to protect.

The real of women’s rights is more than, bigger than, and more profound than “protection”. The real of women’s rights is freedom, and specifically the enjoyment of freedom:

“South Africa’s Constitutional Court makes it clear that, `few things can be more important to women than freedom from the threat of sexual violence.’ So important is this right to be free from all forms of violence that, along with the rights to life and dignity, it imposes two sorts of duties on the state: the first obliging the state to refrain from acting in ways that infringe on these rights, and the second compelling it to develop legislation and structures guaranteeing those rights….It is not only sexual violence that constitutes a rights violation of the sort requiring state intervention: `Indeed, the state is under a series of constitutional mandates which include the obligation to deal with domestic violence: to protect both the rights of everyone to enjoy freedom and security of the person and to bodily and psychological integrity, and the right to have their dignity respected and protected, as well as the defensive rights of everyone not to be subjected to torture in any way and not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.”

Imagine a South Africa in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which democracy means the enjoyment of freedom. Instead of celebrating Women’s Day, what about Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?


(Photo credit: Halden Krog / Times Live)

Protection stalks transnational women workers

For many transnational women workers, life in the global economy is hard. They often deal with separation and alienation, abuse, isolation, and more, and worse. For some, the monetary rewards make it worthwhile. For others, the periods of autonomy, however partial, and the developing mastery of strange and foreign cultures is a kind of reward. For others still, over the years, they develop bonds, ties, community, intimacy. And for many, after all is said and done, they did what they felt they had to do, and really there’s nothing to be said, as far as they’re concerned.

That the contemporary world is a hard place for transnational women workers may be worth repeating, but it’s not news, and it’s not new. The `birth’ of the global economy, of world-systems of development and trade, with its reliance on women’s cheap and available labor, produced new species of vulnerability, precariousness, exploitation, hardship; and women workers have developed new strategies of survival with dignity and of struggle. We know this already.

The contemporary world is not only a hard place for transnational women workers. It’s an unforgiving place. Ask those whose names must be withheld. Ask them about `protection.’

There’s a woman from Moldova whose name must be withheld. At 14 she was abducted, forced into prostitution, and shipped from Moldova to Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Israel and the United Kingdom. For seven years, she was regularly beaten, raped, threatened with death. According to various reports, she was treated as a slave.

In 2003, she was arrested in a brothel in England. No one bothered to listen to, or to ask for, her story. No one asked if she needed, wanted or could use `protection’, and none was offered. Instead, she served three months in Holloway prison, and then was summarily turned over to the UK Border Agency. At Oakington detention centre, she was shot through the Detained Fast-Track system, and then ejected. It was all very efficient. Seek protection in this world, and ye shall find deportation.

The woman was shipped back to Moldova. The men who had kidnapped her in the first place knew she was coming, found her, savagely beat her, and forced her back into prostitution. Four years later, in 2007, she was again arrested in England and sent to Yarl’s Wood. There, someone from the Eaves Housing Poppy Project identified her as a refugee, and helped her to make a successful asylum claim. At last, someone saw her, identified her, as a woman, as a human being.

This week, four years later, the United Kingdom Home Office finally agreed to a `groundbreaking’ settlement with the woman, paying her a `substantial’ amount for having so efficiently sent her back into a place where she was destined to encounter extraordinary violence against her person.

Today, the woman remains anonymous, her name is withheld, because the men who kidnapped, tortured, and exploited her are still out there, and her life and the lives of her family members are in danger.

There is a woman from the Philippines whose name likewise must be withheld. She is a domestic worker in Dubai. She is 42 years old, the mother of one. She has worked as a maid for three years. She has worked in one household, where the conditions have been intolerable. And yet, for three years, she tolerated the intolerable. Finally, in January, she gave her boss a one-month notice, after three years of mental abuse, 16-hour work days, 7 days a week. Her boss refused to accept her resignation. He told her she must stay.

He said he controlled her. Her visa depended on her employer. He placed a visa ban on her, and informed the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department. The Department concurred. In Dubai, as in all the United Arab Emirates, a visa ban means one must leave and one can never return.

The employment agency that had placed her offered to replace her with a new maid. The employer refused.

Having exhausted every possible legal means, the woman fled. She sought refuge at the Philippines Overseas Labour Office. They offered to help her fight, to help her stay and find another job, to help her get the visa ban lifted.

But they could not offer the woman protection. In Dubai, every month, over fifty domestic workers appeal to their various embassies for help, for protection. This was just one more case.

The woman was arrested and taken to Al Wasl immigration holding prison, where she now awaits imminent deportation. “All I want to do is work hard for a good family. Now I have to go back with nothing. I can’t stand to tell my family in the Philippines, they rely on me for financial support.”

These stories of abuse are altogether unexceptional. They are absolutely ordinary stories of ordinary violence committed by ordinary employers, States, everyone against ordinary transnational women workers, women whose names must be withheld. They are part of the everyday, of the parable of protection that is global, intimate, and everywhere. In the global economy, protection stalks transnational women workers.


(Photo Credit:

Protection: when the powerful offer protection, women know

The day after Obama won the Presidential election, The New York Times wrote that Obama won a decisive victory because “he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens”. At the time, I wrote that protection was the wrong goal, that from India to Haiti to Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexico-US borderlands more generally, the powerful offer protection to those they call citizens, and ignore women’s demands for democratic, full and mutual engagement, for the right and capacity to dream and love in public as well as in private. The powerful offer protection as a means to ignore women.

That was November 2009. It’s January 2010, time to consider, again, protection. Not the protection that follows mass devastation, such as in Haiti. Nor the protection that follows extreme violence, as with the massacre near Jos, Nigeria. Nor the protection of legislative and other forms of hate campaigns, as in the current anti-gay Bill in Uganda, where we are all being protected from the threat and scourge of same-sex love and sexuality.

Instead, consider two linked national – global moments in which the powerful few claim to offer the gift of protection to the citizens of the nation.

The World Cup is coming to South Africa. Across the country, “the question of how to deal with sex workers grows louder”. What exactly is the problem, the to-deal-with, with sex workers? Because sex work is illegal, the issues of health and safety for both clientele and workers remain insoluble, and the rights and well being of the sex workers remain distant: “Sex work is illegal in South Africa. Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), has been campaigning to decriminalize sex work for the past 12 years, said spokeswoman Vivienne Lalu. 

Rights activists say legalizing sex work would protect the workers and their clients from HIV and abuse; there are moves afoot to review the Sexual Offences Act. But, Lalu says, `We are still some years away.’”

Legalizing sex work would protect the workers, not because the law, given by the powerful, would afford protection, but because the entire issue would move from the realm of sexuality to that of workers. Once sex work in South Africa, as anywhere, is legalized, sex workers can unionize, can create their own formal, autonomous, sanctioned spaces, alliances, affiliations. Workers, and especially women workers, don’t seek protection. They demand the right to association. They demand respect for the dignity of their individual and collective labor. That is the reason that the lead up to the World Cup in South Africa has been marked by so many protests. Across South Africa, the poors, largely women, have rejected the promise and offer of protection, in the form of forced removals for their own good, and instead have called for housing, public services, education, and health care.

The Olympics are coming to Canada, and so Canada, British Columbia in particular,  anticipates an increase in sexual assaults during the 2010 Olympics, and, of course, all the money has been spent on `security’. The buildings and international `visitors’ must be protected.

But British Columbia had enough money recently to outsource welfare-to-work to a company called WCG International HR Solution. WCG is a subsidiary of Providence Service Corporation, based in Tucson, Arizona. WCG billed the government for `no-shows’. This is business as usual. When you outsource `helping’, women and children are the first casualties. This is not new information. It’s been available to British Columbians since at least 2005, when Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health appeared, sharing stories of 21 women who did not seek protection but rather struggled and organized for change. Instead of change, they got the Olympics and the gift of protection: evictions, clinic closures, increased police presence.

When the promise of protection comes from the powerful, it is always fatal, first to women and children, then to everyone and every thing else. Women know the pitfalls of powerful protection. Women know, in their bodies, the economies of extraction, theft, exploitation and abuse. Change from below seeks material equality, space, time, and it begins and ends with women. Protection from the powerful is what it always has been, an insurance policy forced upon people by extortionists.


(Image Credit: