Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda
 

Sex Education Therapists Run Afoul of Uganda’s Strict Anti-Pornography Law

 

Article Highlights

Uganda

In rural Uganda, girls preparing for marriage traditionally relied on paternal aunts – called ssengas – for intimate instruction in sex and domestic life, including lessons in the controversial regional practice of labia stretching. As the familial ssenga tradition waned, professional ssengas began fulfilling a role that many Ugandans still consider vital. But a year after Parliament and the president enacted a law banning the production and dissemination of sexual imagery, two professional ssengas are fighting porn charges that could land them in prison.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Justine Nantume lounges on a flowery woolen carpet in the break room at NBS Television, a station where she presents a program on marital issues.

Her legs are stretched before her, the left crossed neatly over the right. She holds a piece of white paper folded at both ends to represent female genitalia.

“Do you know how many holes exist in a woman’s private parts?” she quizzes this reporter.

“They are four,” Nantume says, pointing to the folded paper.

“They all bring in air,” says Nantume, explaining why she advises women to stretch their labia minora. “That is why pulling closes in and keeps the vagina warm.”

Nantume, 43, is a traditional sex education therapist – in the Luganda language, a ssenga.

As a child in Masaka, a district in Uganda’s Central region, Nantume watched her mother, a traditional birth attendant, prepare teenage girls for marriage.

When she grew up and moved to the capital, Kampala, Nantume realized that most women were getting married without the traditional preparation, which includes sex education, advice on relating to one’s husband and in-laws, and instruction in cooking and cleanliness; in some communities, ssengas teach their students how to stretch their labia minora, a traditional practice that many people here believe enhances sexual pleasure.

Nantume started offering these lessons at a fee to married women and girls preparing to marry. Fourteen years after she began her practice, her services have become so popular that she has her own show on NBS Television.

Herself unmarried, Nantume offers lessons on sex, partnership and homemaking.

One aspect of her work has come under legal scrutiny.

Nantume was arrested last December under the nation’s infamous new Anti-Pornography Act, which prohibits sexually explicit photos and videos.

In Uganda, paternal aunts – known as ssengas – traditionally prepare their nieces for marriage, teaching them about everything from housework to sex. But thanks to urbanization and modernization, many blood-related ssengas today are either too busy in the working world or live too far from their nieces to provide such instruction.

A new profession, the commercial ssenga, has emerged to fill this gap. About 40 registered ssengas offer their services in Kampala.

But the work of professional ssengas has come into conflict with Uganda’s controversial Anti-Pornography Act of 2014, which prohibits sexually provocative images and behavior, such as wearing revealing clothing.

Nantume is one of two Kampala ssengas arrested in the past six months on suspicion of producing and distributing pornographic materials. The defendants say the materials in question provide basic sex education.

The traditional ssenga system ensured that girls had sufficient knowledge of sex and relationships before getting married, says Florence Muhanguzi, a gender specialist and lecturer at Makerere University.

Ssengas took their nieces through this process before they turned 16. Traditionally, ssengas also were responsible for ensuring that their nieces remained chaste until marriage, Muhanguzi says. Among the Baganda people of the Central region, a ssenga would collect bed sheets after the wedding night to check for blood stains – evidence the bride had gone to bed a virgin.

In some tribes in western Uganda, such as the Bafumbira and Banyarwanda, ssengas have long taught their nieces to elongate their labia in preparation for marriage.

The traditional ssenga system has waned in Uganda, especially in urban areas.

“I can’t tell when these cultures started dying out, but they are no more,” Muhanguzi says.

Professional ssengas, or sex education therapists, have emerged in Kampala and other Ugandan cities, offering traditional ssenga instruction for a fee. Ssengas give sex talks at bridal showers, in their own homes, at women’s workshops and on TV.

About 40 professional ssengas are registered at a Kampala cultural center, Nantume says. Their clients include married women and single adult women as well as teenage girls.

Nantume sees anywhere from 15 to 100 clients a week at her home. When she holds group sessions, that number can go as high as a thousand. A session takes half a day.

Most of her clients want to learn how to elongate the labia minora, a practice that Nantume and her peers claim keeps the vagina warm, making sex more pleasurable.

“They like that most,” she says. “Their husbands bring them here for me to teach them.”

She gives clients a powder made from a local herb, mperewe, to apply when stretching the labia.

But Dr. Elizabeth Sunya, a gynecologist at Nkozi Hospital in Mpigi, a district neighboring Kampala, says elongating the labia has no known medical benefits. (The practice also has no known negative effects, Sunya adds.)

Nantume offers postpartum mothers another local herb, kagyampuni, to tighten their vaginas.

Joyce Kawuku, another professional ssenga in Kampala, entered the field to fill a need. The operator of a beauty clinic, Kawuku started offering marital preparation lessons and sex lessons after many of her clients inquired about such services.

In her marital preparation lessons, she teaches young women how to relate to their husbands and in-laws. In sex therapy sessions, she teaches them how to have sex, the roles women play during sex, and how to make sex pleasurable. Kawuku, who offers both half-day and full-day sessions, instructs about 50 women a week.

Kawuku also gives sex talks at four to six bridal showers a month. During the holiday months of April, August and December, she attends up to 12 showers. She charges 150,000 shillings ($50) a session.

Virginity is still cherished in Uganda, but it is less common for women to be virgins when they marry, Kawuku says.

To help, she sells women soaps that she claims will tighten their vaginas, giving the illusion of restored virginity, and provide other benefits, such as enhancing their sexual urges. She makes the soaps with natural ingredients such as eggs and pawpaw leaves. The soaps, which she sells for 5,000 shillings ($1.60) to 8,000 shillings ($2.50) apiece, are popular with unmarried girls, she says.

While their work is sought after, professional ssengas are running afoul of the strict anti-pornography regulations Uganda enacted in February 2014.

The law forbids the production, publication or broadcast of pornographic content. Violators can be fined up to 10 million shillings ($3,000) and imprisoned up to 10 years. The law – last year dubbed Uganda’s miniskirt ban – even forbids sexually suggestive attire and public conduct.

Nantume and another ssenga, Mariam Ndibasa, were arrested for allegedly producing and distributing pornographic materials.

Nantume was arrested in December 2014 while conducting a training in her home, she says. She was in police custody for one night.

Police said videos sold at a local market led them to Nantume. The videos allegedly feature her voice and provide a phone number for her.

Nantume denies producing the videos. She does produce audiotapes with sex lessons, but someone must have added visual sexual content to some of the tapes, she says.

She says she was producing the audiotapes long before the anti-pornography law was enacted.

“I did not know it was a crime to teach couples how to better their marriages and sex lives,” she says.

Ndibasa was arrested a few weeks later, on Jan. 8, and spent two days in jail. She too is accused of producing videos with sexual content.

Fred Enanga, press officer for the Uganda Police Force, says the Nantume and Ndibasa investigations are ongoing. Once police obtain enough evidence, both will be charged with producing and distributing pornographic materials, he says.

Teaching women about sex using images of any kind does run counter to the law, Kampala attorney Peruth Nshemereirwe says, stressing the broad reach of the law.

Recording artists have been arrested for producing music videos containing nudity or clothing deemed risqué. Even private individuals whose nude photos were leaked online have been arrested, she says.

Calling porn and immodesty inducements to commit sex crimes, members of Parliament say they crafted the law to protect women and children, according to the Parliament website.

Many women, however, support the work of ssengas, saying it makes them better wives.

Jalia, a Kampala mother of two who requested partial anonymity to avoid stigma, says her marriage would not have lasted had she not visited a ssenga.

“My friend, these ssengas are helpful. I would not be having any marriage if it was not for ssenga Nantume. Hmmmmm,” she sighs, adding emphasis. “I got married when I did not know anything. My father has no sisters, and my mother did not talk to me about these things.”

Before she received instruction, Jalia found sex painful. She often experienced bruising. She began to resent sex. Three months into her marriage, Jalia’s husband asked her to seek the services of a commercial ssenga.

Nantume gave her sex lessons and some herbs to use in elongating her labia minora. Jalia says sex became more pleasurable for both her and her husband, who have now been married for four years.

Juma Ssentongo, a butcher who works in Luzira, a Kampala suburb, says his wife became better in all of her wifely duties after a ssenga gave her some lessons.

Women trained in marriage manage homes better, Ssentongo says.

“Ever since my wife was trained by a ssenga, she is more neat and organized and can handle the kitchen and bedroom better,” he says, smiling.

Some women, however, do not see the necessity of ssengas.

“If children are not taught how to suckle, then why should adults be taught about sex?” says Linda Nabwete, a mother in the Kampala suburb of Gayaza.

Ssengas who train women to elongate their labia seem to be challenging God, Nabwete says.

“I think God who created us the way we are was not wrong,” she says. “If he knew we needed extra parts, he would have created them.”

Margaret Ntakirwa, a 35-year-old business woman in Bwaise, a Kampala slum, abhors the culture of elongating labia. Ssengas assume that every woman will get married to a man who likes elongated labia, she says.

“Suppose one marries a man who hates them, do they have to go for surgery to remove those extra things that have no biological name?” Ntakirwa shouts. “If one happens to marry a man who likes elongated labia, he should pull them himself.”

She says ssengas are more interested in making money than promoting morals and good marriages.

But Nantume defends her profession, saying not all ssengas are interested in money. Some are dedicated to tackling marital issues, she says.

Muhanguzi, the gender specialist and lecturer, says commercial ssengas could play a vital role in family planning and disease prevention. It’s unfortunate they spend their time teaching outdated customs, she says.

Nantume disagrees. She says family planning and disease prevention are better left to medical practitioners. Ssengas are not trained to offer such services, she says.

It remains to be seen if the anti-pornography law will hamper sex education in other settings.

Muhanguzi says sex lessons should be given to both young men and young women as they prepare to get married. But most Ugandan cultures teach women to please men sexually rather than teaching men and women to pleasure each other, she says.

“Gender and sexuality within marriage has a male perspective,” she says. “They want a woman to impress the man, but they don’t think the man should please the woman. In any relationship, both parties have to take charge. They all should be prepared.”

Nantume advises couples not to struggle in marriage when counselors like her are available.

“Those who have marital challenges should seek help because it is available through ssengas,” she says.

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ, translated some Interviews from Luganda.