Ugandan activist jailed, accused of ‘cyber-harassing’ president for sanitary pads

Stella Nyanzi (left) at a training workshop by the African Peacebuilding Network and African Leadership Centre in 2015. (Dagan Rossini/Flickr)

Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi has been arrested and charged with cyber-harassing the president, whom she has repeatedly criticized for reneging on a promise to give free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

Stella Nyanzi

Court documents indicated that the harassment charges stemmed from a Facebook post in January, “where she made a suggestion or proposal referring (to) His Excellency, Yoweri Museveni as among others, ‘a pair of buttocks.'”

The post reads: “That is what buttocks do. They shake, jiggle, shit and fart. Museveni is just another pair of buttocks. … Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country.”

Nyanzi’s lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, said that the activist has denied the charges of cyber-harassment and offensive communication.

“Dr. Nyanzi is within her constitutional rights and we are for an all-out legal battle with the state to defend her rights,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, on Saturday criticized the arrest as an attack on freedom of expression.

“The arrest and criminal charges brought against Nyanzi are yet another clear indicator that those who express critical views of the government can face its wrath,” Burnett said. “The manner of Nyanzi’s arrest on Friday was more about intimidation than law enforcement.”

After Nyanzi’s arrest, many of her supporters and other activists said that while her choice of words are profane, they do not indicate anything more sinister.

Al Jazeera reported that Nyanzi, a research fellow at Uganda’s Makerere University, was detained at a hotel on Friday shortly after hosting a fundraising drive to raise money for sanitary pads for schoolgirls. The pads were originally promised by President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet, during their campaign for re-election in 2016.

Earlier this year, however, Janet Museveni told the country’s Parliament that the government would not be providing the promised sanitary pads due to the country’s slowing economy. Nyanzi lambasted the announcement in several posts on Facebook, using graphic language peppered with insults directed towards the First Lady, whom she refused to call “Mama Janet,” as most Ugandans do:

What sort of mother allows her daughters to keep away from school because they are too poor to afford padding materials that would adequately protect them from the shame and ridicule that comes by staining their uniforms with menstrual blood? What malice plays in the heart of a woman who sleeps with a man who finds money for millions of bullets, billions of bribes, and uncountable ballots to stuff into boxes but she cannot ask him to prioritize sanitary pads for poor schoolgirls? She is no Mama! She is just Janet!

For years, the aid and development industry has spotlighted menstruation and its effect on girls and women in Uganda and other developing countries, from shame and embarrassment to dropping out of school.

Critics rarely speak publicly against the government of Uganda, a conservative country notorious for its intolerance of homosexuality and its government’s tendency to detain and torture its political opponents. Nyanzi has fearlessly denounced the government for years, speaking out against homophobia, gender and sexual discrimination in ways her audience regards with a mixture of shock and humor.

During a dispute with her university last year, she protested by taking off all her clothes on national television. She once wrote a lyrical post about getting an STD.

In the current case, the BBC reported that the prosecution has questioned the mental health of the activist, who appeared in court in the capital of Kampala on Monday. Nyanzi remains in custody pending a bail hearing.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com