Uganda Bans Vagina Monologues

U.S. playwright Eve Ensler (right) and other celebrities signed autographs for nurses aids

U.S. playwright Eve Ensler (right) and other celebrities who were in Bombay, India, last year to perform in a production of the Vagina Monologues signed autographs for nurses aids at the Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action (SNEHA) for Women and Children. (Photo: Rob Elliott / AFP-Getty Images)

It is rare for women to make front-page news in Uganda — something reserved for landmark cases such as when the former vice president divorced her husband a few years ago for beating her.

But the government’s banning of the Vagina Monologues, a play written by American Eve Ensler that explores women’s sexuality and abuse, dominated headlines for days and stirred passions in the country’s capital Kampala.

Although the international community has paid tribute to Uganda’s progressive strides in certain matters, to some local human rights activists the episode revealed a country that has failed to shake off patriarchal leanings ingrained in Africa where women are often still treated as the property of men.

The media council, a semi-independent government body prevailing over arts and culture, agreed the play addresses the issue of sexually abused women but ultimately ruled against the Vagina Monologues for glorifying what it describes as unnatural sex — masturbation, lesbianism and homosexuality.

The debate was hijacked by a sudden wave of homophobia that swept across the land and prompted government representatives, religious leaders and ordinary Ugandans to submit letters to newspapers denouncing the inappropriate behavior detailed in the play.

The male-dominated media council asked that the production’s title be changed to something more “socially and culturally sensitive.” But the four Kampala-based non-governmental organizations promoting the Vagina Monologues, Akina Mama wa Afrika, Action Aid International Uganda, Isis-WICCE and Uganda Women’s Network, said intellectual property rights issues prevent them from making changes.

“This play needs to be performed in its entirety or not at all,” explained lead promoter Sarah Mukasa, Ugandan program director of Akina Mama wa Afrika.

The quartet argued the Vagina Monologues tackles rampant sexual violence against women in the country, including genital mutilation, incest, and sexual abuse inflicted by so-called defenders in displaced people’s camps and at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.), a northern Ugandan rebel group that for 19 years has clashed with the government to create a state based on the Ten Commandments.

Uganda’s persistent abuse of women is a cultural tradition, says Mukasa. She explains that the banning of the controversial play is rooted in a long-held belief that it is taboo to discuss sexual assault in society.

“It’s influenced by very right-wing religious doctrine [entrenched] right from the top, to members of parliament, right down to the population in general. And these doctrines really don’t allow discussion.”

This argument has some support. There were rumors circulating that the first lady, Janet Museveni, a staunch Christian, held considerable sway with her husband in outlawing the production.

“We had hoped that Uganda would be renowned for something entirely different,” says Mukasa. “We sought to advance a campaign against violence against women in a frank and unabashed manner.”

The leading crime in Uganda, where 65 percent of all child abuse reported in 2003 was sexually related, is defilement or sex with a girl under 18 years old, according to the latest figures from the African Network for Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, based in Kampala.

Action Aid International Uganda also completed a study showing 84 percent of girls had experienced physical or sexual violence, some of which occurs in school and in part causes them to drop out.

The play’s ban has caused the greatest frustration among women in the northern-most quarters of Uganda. Ester Obwee of the Kitgum Women’s Peace Initiative, based near the Sudanese border in the heart of rebel country, views the Vagina Monologues starring sexually abused actors as a voice for suffering northerners.

She described a desperate situation in which “most of us are sleeping under the veranda on nights and weekends” fearful of marauding L.R.A. soldiers who abduct young girls into sexual slavery.

“But from there we are being raped. We are being raped time and again, and we have got no police.”

All proceeds from the sale of play tickets were to be directed to women’s projects like Obwee’s in northern Uganda, Mukasa explained, but people may still donate their refunds to these causes.

In political circles, meanwhile, there was little surprise at the government’s condemnation. Former minister of state for ethics and integrity, Miria Matembe, said she fielded many phone calls from male colleagues wondering about those “crazy women” staging the play.

Her angry response: “Those are the decent women N.G.O.s working in support of government policies.”

Matembe, a member of parliament, also blamed the public for judging the play without first reading the script. “They thought women were going to strip naked on the stage and show their vaginas.”

The consortium that aimed to bring the play to Uganda was criticized for failing to repackage the western-conceived production to reflect African values. But Action Aid International Uganda country director, Amanda Serumaga, argued the Vagina Monologues is meant to discuss an unsettling issue in Ugandan society.

Besides, said Mukasa, the play has already been performed in 76 countries including the African states of Burkina Faso, Egypt and Kenya, where organizers and performers were initially threatened and physically attacked.

The torrent of negative reaction toward the play is ironic considering President Yoweri Museveni’s government is largely regarded as liberal. His administration has been praised for its openness in handling the sensitive H.I.V./AIDS issue compared with other African countries, a strategy that has seen Uganda’s H.I.V. prevalence decline by 18 percent from the early 1980’s to its current six percent rate, according to United Nations figures.

Uganda has also been proactive in catapulting women into positions of power: Betty Bigombe, the chief negotiator between the government and L.R.A. and former minister in charge of northern Uganda; Christine Aporu, minister of refugees and disaster preparedness; and Grace Okello, minister of state for Northern Uganda, among others.

But even these appointments have drawn criticism. “As I’ve always argued, most of it is window dressing,” says Sylvia Tamale, dean of the faculty of law at Makerere University in Kampala. “It is for political expediency, meant to impress the international community. There’s no real political will to substantively tackle issues of inequality and discrimination on the basis of gender…”

Although it took a hard line on the Vagina Monologues, the ruling party has “treated with kid gloves” The Red Pepper, generally considered a pornographic tabloid that regularly carries sexually explicit photos of women. The publication has spurred public demonstrations, court cases and warnings from ethics ministers, she charged.

“It’s open to anyone of any age,” said Tamale, and added it’s widely believed Museveni’s brother, Lt. Gen. Salim Saleh, has connections to the popular newspaper.

At the moment, though, the play’s sponsors are more concerned about their own cause than racy publications that have not been reigned in by government. They are in the midst of seeking legal advice about their right to stage the play but admit the government has moved on to other pressing issues like next year’s elections.

Still, they are unfazed by the media council’s decision.

“This is not the end,” Serumaga said. “The campaign must continue until the violence stops.”