A group of individuals and organisations, including the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention, Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy, Prof. Sylvia Tamale, Ms. Sarah Kihika, Ms. Lilian Drabo, Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, Uganda Health and Science Press Association and Human Rights Network for Journalist Uganda, today filed a petition in Constitutional Court challenging the legality of the Anti-Pornography Act, signed into law by President Y. Museveni on February 6, 2014.
Initiated by human rights activists and civil society organisations, the petition questions the Act’s compatibility with the constitution and the principles of individual freedom and women’s rights.
John Francis Onyango, one of the lawyers representing the petitioners, notes that “the definition of pornography as stipulated in the Act and the use of vague terminology such as ‘sexual excitement’ creates an offence that is overbroad, vague, and subjective in character in contravention of the principle of legality guaranteed by the Constitution“.
He further highlights that the Act, which provides for the creation of an Anti-Pornography Committee in charge of, among several duties, ensuring that perpetrators of pornography are apprehended and prosecuted and that pornographic materials are collected and destroyed, “confers wide and discretionary powers in contravention of the rights to personal liberty, privacy and property”.
“This Act embodies a set of values and justifies the involvement of the state in personal morality, thereby infringing on personal freedom,” said Prof Sylvia Tamale. “It presents a significant challenge to the gains made on the legal front around ensuring freedom over one’s body and sexuality and must be seen as a dangerous step towards further infringement on civil rights and freedom of expression”.
Beyond the challenges associated with legal interpretation, the Anti-Pornography Act also leads to polarization of society by implicitly attributing specific roles and behaviours to men and women and encouraging people to position themselves in relation to a set of values guiding what is morally acceptable.
As a symptom of this phenomenon, about 44 cases have been reported of mobs using the law as an excuse to target and unclothe women that they consider to be improperly dressed. “I never thought this would happen to me, but now I know it can happen to anyone”, said one of the victims. “I am now afraid because I am not sure if I will not follow victim because of what I wear as I step out of my house”. These cases clearly show how the passing of the Act legitimated violence against women in the eyes of certain segments of the population. As outlined in the current petition, “the Act is likely to deny women control over their own bodies and access to public spaces, in contravention of the right to equal dignity and freedom from discrimination, right to personal liberty and security of the person, freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and the freedoms of movement and association.”
Although the recent declarations of the government – announcing further work on the Act and the development of implementation guidelines – can be seen as an effort to appease the critics and contain the increasing violence, it is not likely that the Act, – passed by parliament and assented by the President – will be simply withdrawn. For this reason, it is necessary to challenge the Act and ensure that individual freedom and women’s rights are not endangered by its implementation. “Effectively challenging this Act in Constitutional Court would go a long way towards ending the violence and harassment that women are already facing,” said Daisy Nakato, Executive Director of the Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy. “We call upon the Constitutional Court to pronounce itself urgently on the legality of this Act”.