KAMPALA, Uganda – When Ugandan activist Lindsey Kukunda got tired of the constant sexual harassment she and other women in her country experience, she decided to do something about it. She founded “Not Your Body,” a forum where Ugandan women and men come together to share stories about discrimination and harassment of women.
Uganda’s 2016 demographic and health survey found that more than one in five women report having experienced sexual violence.
Kukunda, 32, says her aim is to change the way Ugandan society views women and to influence policy to protect their rights. Women & Girls met up with her in Kampala.
Women & Girls: What made you take up this cause?
Lindsey Kukunda: I saw an absence of what I would call a feminist movement. I saw pockets of it, but I didn’t see a forum that would bring people together.
I also had a personal experience when I attempted to report sexual harassment to the police. I was lectured and made to feel like it was my fault, and this experience made me wonder what there was to do about it. It also made me wonder how many other women experienced something similar and also didn’t know what to do about it.
Women & Girls: Have other women come and joined you since you started?
Kukunda: Yes, very many have come out of the woodwork. A good number of them had had similar experiences. For many of them, it was being groped in the street. I didn’t know, but apparently it’s quite common for a woman to be walking down the street and for a man to just go up to her and place his hands on her breasts. Many women told me this story. It happens in broad daylight, and no one does anything; it’s not considered a big deal.
Women don’t bother to complain because if they do, then the same thing that happened to me happens to them – they get lectured and before you know it, women are being told it’s their fault. Before you know it, they’re being made to apologize for making the complaint. So it becomes easier not to.
Women & Girls: Do you think Ugandan women expect to be mistreated by men?
Kukunda: Yes, absolutely. For example, if I’m walking down a road and there are three men behind me, I’ll cross to the other side. When I enter certain highly populated areas, I expect to be touched against my wishes. If I were to marry a Ugandan man, I would not be surprised if he turned out to be abusive, if he turned out to be the kind of man to beat me, because many are. [Editor’s note: U.N. Women says more than half of Ugandan women experience abuse at the hands of their partners at least once in their life, and more than one-third have experienced it in the past 12 months.]
Women & Girls: What do you hope to achieve?
Kukunda: Victory for me would be for [Ugandan authorities] to stop talking empty words and to start being about actions. I would love it if Uganda was the kind of place where being born a woman does not come with conditions. I would like it if we didn’t have to fight constantly, negotiating all the time. I would love it if we had a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and abuse.
Women & Girls: What role do men play in this struggle?
Kukunda: They need to stand with us and acknowledge that this is happening, rather than acting like it isn’t a problem and holding women responsible for what happens. For example, [I heard about] a university lecturer telling his students that women should not wear trousers or short skirts because it distracts the male students. [Editor’s note: Similar incidents have repeatedly made headlines in Uganda.]
In my opinion, what the men could do in a situation like this is to stand up and walk out of the room in protest, but if they sit down and laugh, then it perpetuates the idea that it’s OK for girls to alter the way they dress for them.
Women & Girls: Do you get any backlash because of your work?
Kukunda: Oh my goodness, there has been. There was a particularly vicious incident on social media where a lady had come out about sexual harassment, and I noticed that a couple of women online were very quick to condemn her and find ways that she was responsible – the usual story. I stepped in and tried to defend her, but before I knew it people were attacking me, and my family, very aggressively and it became really personal.
People attacked me for being a pseudo-feminist and urged people to keep away from me. The people who attacked me got a lot of public support and praise; people thanked them for “finally giving it to those feminists,” and all of this came from other women.
Women & Girls: What’s next for your activism?
Kukunda: I would love to influence policy. I’m not comfortable with institutional policies that make it OK to abuse women. I’m talking about policies like [certain] schools taking girls for pregnancy tests every term.
I’m talking about things like cutting off girls’ hair [so that it appears “neat”]. Girls [should have] autonomy while they’re still young, without having society decide what their bodies should look like.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.