KAMPALA, UGANDA — Regina started the night determined to get revenge.
This was years ago, when she was 20 and so angry with her boyfriend that she went out with another man. They drank beer, flirted, ducked into a hotel room. They were intertwined on the bed when Regina changed her mind about wanting to have sex. Stop, she told the man. She burst into tears.
“He insisted for a few seconds until he realized I was crying earnestly,” says Regina, who asked that her last name not be used to avoid undue stigma. The man backed off, but Regina realized how easily he could have overpowered her — and whom her fellow Ugandans would have condemned. “If he had insisted and raped me, I would have been blamed for going out with him.”
Although Uganda has made significant progress in recent years toward increasing women’s access to education and political power, advocates say its sexual assault laws lag behind. They don’t address date rape, marital rape or thorny scenarios like Regina’s, in which a person’s consent shifts over the course of a sexual encounter.
Earlier this year, several members of Parliament tried to change that by championing the so-called consent-withdraw clause. The clause, part of a broader bill addressing sex crimes, would have criminalized continuing to engage in sexual contact with a person who withdrew consent mid-act. The effort set off a fight that highlights the country’s deep discord over gender rights.
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“A man can change his mind during a sexual act, and I am expected to understand a man,” says Namutebi Gida, a 29-year-old single mother who lives outside Kampala, the capital. “But for women, we are not allowed to change our minds because most Ugandan traditions perceive women as properties, and properties have no say.”
The debate emerges as the United States-born #MeToo movement, which encouraged people to speak publicly about their experiences with gender-based violence, continues to reshape ideas of sexual consent around the globe.
Uganda is considered a “trailblazer” in enacting women-friendly policies, according to a report by ALiGN, a gender-equality project run by the Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank in London. These include reserving seats in Parliament for women and creating a gender ministry. However, in matters of sex and relationships, the country remains deeply patriarchal.
Ugandan women told ALiGN researchers that, as girls, they learned that appearing “rebellious” would keep them from getting married; as wives, they are expected to cook, clean and hold a job “while the man is just hanging out like the male lion.” Before marriage, a groom’s family usually pays a “bride price” in goats, food, alcohol or money, a transaction, Gida says, that helps “make men believe that they have bought women and own women as their property.”
Such attitudes color how sex crimes are handled. Nearly 1 in 5 urban women and 1 in 4 rural women surveyed in 2016 reported experiencing harassment, rape or other sexual violence since age 15, according to a government report. (Fewer than 1 in 10 men said the same.) The most common perpetrator was a woman’s current romantic partner.
Yet Ugandan law doesn’t address intimate-partner crimes, says David Mugambe Mpiima, a lecturer at the School of Women and Gender Studies at Makerere University in Kampala. “To most Ugandans, the concept of marital rape or date rape is impossible,” he says. More than 80% of Ugandans identify as Christians. “From the Christian perspective, it’s assumed that once you are married, you are one. You are fusing yourself with another person, so the issue of withdraw of consent becomes extremely difficult for a devoted Christian to navigate.”
Sexual assaults are likely underreported and underprosecuted, Mpiima says. Those who are assaulted often fear they will be stigmatized or harassed if they tell police, or that officers will botch the investigation, he says. According to a 2020 report by the U.S. State Department, Ugandan police have reportedly accepted bribes from alleged attackers to drop investigations and told people assaults on them were the result of their “dressing indecently.”
Fred Enanga, a Uganda Police Force spokesman, criticizes the report as lacking specifics and says the agency has internal safeguards to “make sure that the rights of the victims are not actually abused.”
Advocates point to a systemic issue. “People will assume consent where it isn’t,” says Grace Namataka, national advocacy coordinator at the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention in Kampala. “Going out with a man on the date isn’t consent, going into his bedroom isn’t consent, accepting his money isn’t consent. But all these will be misinterpreted as consent, and this makes it difficult for the sexual violence cases to be given the attention they deserve.”
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In 2015, lawmaker Monica Amoding introduced the consent-withdraw clause, the result of conversations with activists about situations Ugandan law didn’t address. For example, a new mother realizing mid-intercourse that her body hasn’t healed enough to continue. Or a couple shifting from oral to anal sex when one person isn’t comfortable with that. “As human beings, we are expected to understand when our partners say, ‘Stop, this isn’t working for me,’” says Amoding, a member of the ruling National Resistance Movement party.
Lawmakers included the clause in the 2019 Sexual Offences Bill, wide-ranging legislation that also banned same-sex relationships. After wending through the lawmaking process, the bill came up for a vote this year.
The clause faced a common criticism of feminist reforms: that it was an unnecessary Westernization of Ugandan law. Musinguzi Alfred, 52, is a married man who works as a teacher outside Kampala. “This is another absurd foreign idea that fails to acknowledge our cultural and religious perspective of marriage, which stands for better and for worse,” he says.
Despite the quotas guaranteeing women parliamentary seats, two-thirds of members are men. Silas Aogon, an independent lawmaker, views the clause as a potential reputational dagger. “The clause, once passed into law, would be abused by people with political motive to destroy others,” he says. “The gravity of the penalty would be considered rape, a very serious offense that I don’t think should be related to withdraw of consent.” Many lawmakers agreed.
When Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Bill in May, the clause wasn’t included. “There’s so much sexism where women are looked at as the inferior gender, and this has led to the acceptance of sexual violence against many women and girls,” says Kyosimire Byarugaba Pricilla, director of Frauen Initiative Uganda, which works with women who have experienced sexual assault.
In August, President Yoweri Museveni declined to sign the bill and sent it back to lawmakers to make amendments. Reviving the consent-withdraw clause will not be among them.