What does security mean to African women?


What does security mean to you? That’s the question we’re asking bloggers from different regions of the world in the run-up to our TEDxHagueAcademySalon on Secure Societies.

Rosebell Kagumire is a Ugandan blogger and journalist focusing on peace and conflict issues. She argues that war crimes against women are rooted in a security struggle that women have to deal with day to day.

By Rosebell Kagumire 

When you mention African women and security, thoughts will likely dash to the many wars past and present in different parts of the continent. This is because of the mass crimes specifically against women, including the sexual violence that has been committed from Eastern Congo to Darfur, from Kenya during post-election violence to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and now Central African Republic.

But security is something that many young African women, far from the frontlines, have to deal with every day.  If we cannot protect women during what we believe are times of peace then it becomes much more difficult to see how women can be protected in times when most forms of social protection are eroded.


In my country, Uganda, for the last 30 years women who have predominantly lived outside the regions that have suffered war may have not envisaged a situation where they would be publicly attacked in broad daylight with no one to offer help.

But the past month has taught us that public attacks on women are not something saved for war times. Since the passing of the Anti-Pornography Law – which the public have understood to be an anti-miniskirt law – we have witnessed increased attacks on young women in various towns in Uganda.

Ironically a law that its moralist drafters say was to control pornography, which is ‘blamed for sexual crimes against women’, has instead increased attacks on women.

The last time Uganda was obsessed with policing morality was when President Idi Amin banned mini-skirts.  Certain Ugandan men are treating the new law as a legitimate tool to back their attacks on women’s bodies – mainly by undressing women publicly in the name of morality.  These men claim that they are offended by women showing their legs. They justify attacks by arguing that the minister in charge of the country’s ethics has told them they can take part in a decision regarding where women’s skirt hems should be.

So far ten women are reported to have been publically undressed and two were imprisoned on a court order because of their length of their skirts.

Colonial opression

Uganda isn’t the first country on the continent that has tried to control women’s dressing. There have been cases of violent public undressing of women in South Africa too. These attacks on women are often shrouded in talk of ‘African culture’. And when you ask what exactly ‘African culture’ is, you find it is just another colonial establishment.

In Uganda, a country with a corruption-ridden government that is running out of options, it is easier to focus the psyche of the populace on women’s bodies as a battleground. What a way to preoccupy the youth – most of them uneducated - in a country with a staggering 83 percent youth unemployment.

The current legislative and rhetorical attacks on women’s rights taking place in Uganda are not only deplorable but also a manifestation of colonial oppression easily resurrected under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that oppress men and women differently.  

Navigating your security

For young African women, security challenges aren’t just about wars that are sometimes far away. For a young woman, security means trying hard to get a decent job in a corporate world that employs fewer women. It also means battling sexual harassment at work once you get such a job.

With such laws draped in misconceptions about what an African culture really is, being a young woman means navigating your security by spending time measuring the length of your clothes. This is done while you also deal with other emerging security challenges that the very same society faces, ranging from regions of conflict to urban crime.


More blogs in this series:

Dima Nicolas on surviving day to day in the world's mose insecure society: Hopes in dangerous Syria

Wenjing Fan on everyday insecurities: What does security mean in China?


Image: Ugandan women protest against the country's new Anti-Pornography Law (CCTV Africa / YouTube)