Equal Protection under the Law

Successful democracies attempt to ensure that all citizens have equal rights and equal protection under the law.  This has been perhaps one of the most challenging facets of democracy for Uganda to adopt.  Although Uganda allows free and fair multiparty elections in concept if not always in reality, the country still has an uphill battle towards ensuring equal rights and protections for all citizens.  This is most visible in the handling of controversial comments about women and rape by a government minister recently as well as two pieces of legislation prohibiting certain items of women’s clothing and criminalizing homosexuality.

Late last year Youth Minister attended the opening of a new youth center where he delivered the opening address.  During his address he told the audience that women are responsible for rape and assault because of how they dress and behave in public.  His comments were met with public outrage and calls for his dismissal.  Although there was in inquiry into his remarks, he remains in office.

Concurrently the legislature began considering a law prohibiting certain items of women’s clothing including but not limited to miniskirts.  The argument for such legislation was made on the grounds that the way in which a woman dresses encourages or protects against rape and sexual assault.  While this did not pass into law, it is indicative of wider attitudes towards women and the legal issues surrounding equal rights for women.  Although there is universal suffrage in Uganda, women are still considered by many to be second class citizens whose lives are defined by their relationship to male relatives and/or husbands within Uganda’s patriarchal society.

A similar rights issue has arisen with the passage of an anti-homosexuality law recently.  The law was met with international condemnation and uproar within Uganda, but for different reasons.  The international community was outraged over the passage of such a law because it infringed on the basic rights of the gay and lesbian community in Uganda.  Some within Uganda were similarly outraged, while others were upset about the international community’s condemnation of the law.  They argue that there are far more pressing issues on women’s rights and the effects of poverty that the international community is not using its clout to change.  The argument from some opinion writers in Ugandan newspapers state that while they support the rights of the gay and lesbian community in Uganda, the denial of rights to women is much more pervasive and more important because women are half of the country’s population.

Some of the public outrage over these issues transcends traditional lines of affiliation based on ethnicity or locality.  Whether for good or ill, popular mobilization on these issues, for or against, could provide an opportunity for civil society groups to develop across traditional boundary lines.  Regular protests in Kampala, the capital, in the wake of corruption revelations and the theft of $15 million in development aid provide an opening for other groups to form and agitate for the representative democracy in Uganda to represent their views.

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