Uganda—a culture that puts women at risk of great violence

A new film and how to change minds about who is at fault for Uganda’s endemic violence against women.

Still from 'Kyenvu,' a film by Kemiyondo Coutinho.

Kemiyondo Coutinho, a young Ugandan actress raised in Swaziland, began creating her own roles with “Jabulile,” a play which she wrote and performed in South Africa and the United States. “Jabulile” took on the concerns of Swazi women traders, while Coutinho’s second theatrical offering “Kawuna: You’re it” addressed the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among Ugandan women. Her latest work, and first short film, “Kyenvu,” about rape and set in Kampala, cements Kemiyondo’s interest in illuminating the experiences of African women.

When Kemiyondo returned to live in Kampala in 2016, she knew only a few people working in film locally. This did not stop her from writing, producing, directing and starring in “Kyenvu,” with an entirely Ugandan cast. The 20-minute short touches on issues of identity and colorism, but most importantly rape culture as it is lived in Uganda’s vibrant capital Kampala.

Kyenvu begins charmingly, with a taxi scene (a small bus or matatu) that is familiar to anyone who has traveled around Kampala via public transportation. Like the unnamed main character Kemiyondo plays, I do not speak Luganda, the main language spoken in Kampala and central Uganda, so the taxi passengers’ taunts struck me as amusing and accurate.  “What has she got over us? Light color? Turn her black and see what she looks like.”

Ugandan society is deeply stratified by class, and public transport remains a last bastion in which the privilege of the western-educated abaana wa’bazungu may not apply. (The latter phrase literally means “children of white people” but is used to refer to English-speaking, westernised, young Ugandans). When another passenger stops the taxi conductor from overcharging Kyenvu, we assume it is a love story made for contemporary Africa.

Kyenvu is initially resistant to his advances, but she is eventually won over by his daily gifts. The ubiquitous trope of a woman refusing romantic advances until she is persuaded otherwise, has done much to devalue the idea that women mean “no” when they say it.

The film then takes a dark and unexpected turn when the main character is raped as she is waiting to meet her taxi liaison for their first date.

In Uganda, as is the case elsewhere, sexual violence is an urgent conversation, with “defilement” (the unfortunate name given to the sexual assault of minors in the Penal Code) the most commonly reported crime, accounting for half of serious crime reports in 2016. Thirteen percent of Ugandan women report having experienced sexual violence in the past 12 months. Fifty-six percent of Ugandan women will experience physical violence in their lifetimes.  These statistics from the 2016 Uganda Household Survey came into sharp relief last year when at least 27 women were found raped and strangled to death in Wakiso district, close to the Kampala metropolitan area. The police have alternatively blamed domestic violence, unemployment, drug abuse, criminal gangs and land conflict. Others have suggested witchcraft, political motives and infighting among the country’s security forces for the violence.

In a country where confidence in a corrupt, underfunded and politicized police force nears zero, rumors and conspiracy find fertile ground. It is easier for police to call the victims sex workers, and for the Minister of Internal Affairs to suggest the illuminati is responsible, than to admit that thanks to patriarchy, Ugandan women’s lives are simply worth less. Ministers who blame mini-skirts for sexual violence, parliamentary MPs like Onesmus Twinamatsiko who happily comment on television that “as a man, you need to discipline your wife. You need to touch her a bit, you tackle her, beat her somehow to really streamline her,” are part of a culture that puts women at risk of great violence. The message is that women are at fault for the violence visited upon them, and those who hurt women face little or no consequence for their actions. And while it is gruesome serial killings that make front page news, it is easy to forget that there is an epidemic of sexual violence against Ugandan women and girls, most frequently committed by attackers known to the victim.

In Kyenvu, the rape scene comes seemingly out of leftfield (nowhere in the film’s promotion is there a warning). It is preceded by a clothing montage in which the main character eventually selects a shirt with the word “Feminist” emblazoned across it, and a yellow mini skirt. In the aftermath of the rape the protagonist states “a wardrobe choice changed my life.” Our formerly-intrepid protagonist with her feminist t-shirt is punished for her refusal to be dictated-to by a patriarchal society. There is little meaning to be gained from her violent assault, other than the enlightenment of her hapless date who comes to find her in the shower after the rape. She goes from mocking the idea that women need to be saved in the film’s opening scenes, to wishing she had a “Batman or Superman or anyone” to save her. We get no counter to the victim-blaming narratives embedded in the plot. If you went into the film thinking that women should dress more modestly to avoid violence, you would find little in the narrative to dissuade you. We know that women are most likely to be assaulted by men they know, yet Kyenvu leans into the idea that rape is something that happens when a stranger jumps out of the bush.

Kemiyondo told me, via email, she was compelled to write this film in response to stories of violence and harassment around her. Following the tabling of the 2014 Anti-Pornography Bill, aka the “Anti-Miniskirt Bill,” men publicly assaulted women in Kampala, while some MP’s made misogynistic statements in parliament. “I have always created art because I want to reflect society back at itself. If you are a Ugandan or not, this is your story, if you are a woman or not, this is your story. What you do with the image facing up at you is completely and totally up to you.”

Art and media are not simply a mirror on society, they tell us how and what to think. I believe that Kemiyondo knows this, which is why she has chosen to include a panel discussion following screenings of the film in Uganda. I wish that instead of simply reflecting, the narrative of Kyenvu was also used to interrogate and agitate for ending violence against women. If we are to change minds about who is at fault for Uganda’s endemic violence against women, Kyenvu is unlikely to do it.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.