Battle Over Free Sanitary Pads Lands Ugandan Activist In Jail

Apr 10, 2017
Originally published on April 11, 2017 8:42 am

Stella Nyanzi, one of Uganda's most controversial academics and activists, appeared in court Monday, after being arrested and charged Friday with cyber harassment and the misuse of a computer, for "shaming" the government.

Nyanzi's latest run-in with the 31-year-old regime of President Yoweri Museveni began with a fight for free sanitary pads for school-age girls.

"She's the one person who has dared to come out strongly in the country and say what many have feared to say many, many times," said Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, an LGBT rights activist, shortly after leaving the courthouse.

During the 2016 elections, Museveni and his wife, Janet, promised to provide free pads to poor young girls across the country. That's important, because as this blog has reported, in several in-depth surveys of girls across Africa many reported that they did not have access to products such as pads, that their schools lacked toilets and that they had not been given even basic information about managing their periods — all of which can make it challenging for a girl to attend class during her period. In the surveys, girls also reported a range of concerns about their periods including fear, shame and embarrassment.

The elections passed; Museveni won. Earlier this year, Janet Museveni told the country's Parliament the promised free sanitary pads werent going to happen because the country was facing a tough economic climate.

Nyanzi was furious. She decided if the government wasn't going to do it, she would. So she started a crowdfunding campaign, and she also unleashed a torrent of criticism toward Museveni, his wife and his supporters.

Her criticisms flowed into her Facebook timeline. They were always pointed and sometimes profane.

In one of them, she writes that she refuses to call the president's wife "Mama Janet," as most Ugandas 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!"

Uganda is a country where people usually speak ill of their president only in hushed tones. And with reason: The Ugandan government has been known to arbitrarily detain and in some cases torture its political opponents.

Nyanzi, a social science researcher and anthropologist, has been known for years in Uganda as a rabble-rouser. Last year, when she had a dispute with her university, she protested by taking off all her clothes. She has used humor and shock value to educate Ugandans on issues of sexuality. She once wrote a lyrical post about getting an STD. When educating girls about their periods, she used song and dance to teach them that there is nothing not to love about their bodies.

But the attacks on Uganda's first lady got her suspended from her university job. And that just seemed to fuel her fire. She posted one video of herself in front of her mother's grave. If Museveni had bought medicine instead of bullets, she says, her mother and father would still be alive today.

She also posted a picture of her three young children. She wrote that people ask her: How could you speak so freely, so critically when you have young children to care for?

"My children will live through the coming liberation and the revolution," she wrote. "And so, I speak the dirty truth to power without fear or favor so that my children will learn to breathe living fire to frozen governments. I take my children to peaceful protests and meetings for civil disobedience so that they learn their civic duty to defy this evil regime. For the children, I refuse your silence, your inertia and your sweet hollow words."

When Nyanzi appeared in court Monday, prosecutors said she needed to be evaluated by a psychologist. They charged her with "cyber harassment" for comparing President Museveni to "a pair of buttocks." Nyanzi was also charged with using the Internet to "disturb the peace, quiet or right to privacy" of Museveni.

Nyanzi rejected all those charges.

Nabagesera, who is helping Nyanzi coordinate her response, says the arrest came on the same day they were supposed to deliver pads to the former parliamentary district of the first lady. The government, she says, was embarrassed.

Nyanzi and her supporters will keep fighting, Nabagesera says.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of Uganda's most controversial activists is behind bars. Stella Nyanzi is an anthropologist with a sharp tongue, and she has been charged with harassing the president. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports that it all started with a fight to get poor girls access to sanitary pads.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Last Friday, Stella Nyanzi was put in cuffs at an event promoting the need for sanitary pads because she shamed the government. At least that's according to friend and ally Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera.

KASHA JACQUELINE NABAGESERA: She's the one person who has dared to come out strongly in the country and say what many have feared to say for many, many times.

PERALTA: Nyanzi's story begins during the 2016 presidential campaign, when President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet promised to provide free sanitary pads to poor, young girls across the country. But earlier this year, Janet Museveni, a minister in charge of education, told Parliament that the country didn't have enough money to get this done. That infuriated Nyanzi, so she started a fundraising campaign to give those promised pads to poor girls.

And she started furiously posting her message to Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA NYANZI: Our blood is the seed from which women and men that are powerful have come and yet to tell us that our blood is not important. Blood is sacred. Blood is life.

PERALTA: Nyanzi also went after the government directly. In one of her written posts, she takes on Mama Janet, as Ugandans call the first lady. Nyanzi refused to give her that title because what kind of a mother, she wrote, sends her daughter to school without sanitary pads? She wrote, quote, "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?"

By the time Nyanzi was ready to drop off a donation of sanitary pads on Janet Museveni's home turf, she was arrested. The government, which is known for cracking down on dissent, charged her for cyber harassment and disturbing the president. But Nabagesera, the activist, says they locked her up because they were ashamed that an anthropologist could care for Uganda's poor better than the government.

Not only that, Kasha Nabagesera says, the government is also well aware of what happened to longtime dictators in North Africa when citizens started speaking truth on social media. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.