KAMPALA, Uganda – Ugandan academic and activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi, 42, is no stranger to controversy. In 2016 she undressed and posted images and a video of herself on Facebook during a contract dispute with a Kampala university. And now her criticism of the government and the campaign she has started to provide free sanitary pads for the country’s schoolgirls have landed her in trouble.
The charges against Nyanzi come on the heels of her public criticism of Janet Museveni, Uganda’s first lady and education minister, on Facebook in February, after the MP told parliament that the government had reneged on an election campaign promise veteran president Yoweri Museveni made in 2015 to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls. Among other barbs, Nyanzi said in her post: “[The first lady’s] tongue is too thick to convince Museveni to either buy less bullets or pay less bribes, and instead buy the pads to protect the feminine dignity of Uganda’s young women.”
On April 7, she was arrested and later charged over a January 28 Facebook post in which she labeled the president a “pair of buttocks.” On Monday, Nyanzi pleaded not guilty to “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication,” in a case human rights activists have taken up to draw attention to the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech in Uganda. The single mother of three was remanded in custody until April 25.
For Nyanzi, the issue of sanitary pads is really about government accountability. During their periods, many girls around the world skip school because they don’t have access to sanitary pads. Research varies, but a 2012 study by the SNV Netherlands Development Organisation revealed that in Uganda – where some resort to using old clothes, leaves and even parts of foam mattresses as substitutes for pads – over 60 percent of schoolgirls have missed class during their period. Some girls end up dropping out altogether.
The government’s attempts to silence Nyanzi over her criticisms of the first lady prompted Nyanzi to launch the Pads4GirlsUg campaign, which aims to collect 10 million pads within a year to distribute to schoolgirls. According to the campaign, through various sources of contributions, they’ve raised enough for over 5 million pads, and donations keep coming in.
The government did not respond to requests from Women & Girls for comment on Nyanzi’s weekend arrest. One of her lawyers, Isaac Semakadde, tells Women & Girls that the case is a “farce.” Maria Burnett, associate director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said the charges brought against the activist were “yet another clear indicator that those who express critical views of the government can face its wrath,” and Amnesty International has called for Nyanzi to be released “immediately and unconditionally.”
Despite the authorities trying to stop the campaign, Nyanzi’s volunteers insisted on Monday that they’ll keep going. “Nyanzi’s only a woman trying to advocate for other women,” says one of the volunteers, who asked not to be named.
Women & Girls spoke with Nyanzi on March 16, eight days into her ambitious campaign, about bringing Ugandans together on the issue of menstrual health.
Women & Girls: Why are you focusing on sanitary pads?
Stella Nyanzi: It was totally, utterly shocking when the first lady, also minister of education, goes to address a committee in parliament and has the audacity to say there’s no money for sanitary pads. She is a woman; she has access to powerful groups, donors. She’s called Mama Janet. A mother doesn’t neglect her children. Anybody who’s a woman – whether you’re Christian, Muslim, religious, animist – we all menstruate. Whether you support Uganda’s ruling party National Resistance Movement (NRM) or opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), we all menstruate. Menstruation unites us as women. I thought if the government wants to gag me, I’ll give them shit for shit. I’m not very easy to discipline or control.
Women & Girls: Why do you think the campaign has resonated with so many?
Nyanzi: A lot of us are just so disheartened by our current government – the graft, embezzlement … Some of us are like, f*** the government, let’s show them it doesn’t take a lot to care for underprivileged girls.
Women & Girls: And why do you think you were interrogated by police?
Nyanzi: It’s difficult to see into the governments’ mind, because it’s sick. But the way I interpreted it was as intimidation. I have quite a sizable following online and I think to punish me is to send a message to others. So I think it was more an intimidation tactic.
Women & Girls: Besides local pad producers and citizens, who else has come onboard?
Nyanzi: A lot of foreign missions and international organizations are saying, “Let’s have a conversation.” Then there are “pad banks” collecting pads and money on our behalf.
Ugandans in the diaspora are very motivated to be part of the efforts. The men who are responding want to see the government being a bit more involved in the issue. It would be good to collect 10 million pads in a year. If we get that earlier, then we’ll go for 100 million.
Women & Girls: Besides access to pads, what other issues are involved?
Nyanzi: Most public schools in Uganda lack running water and flush toilets. Some have boreholes. Pit latrines that are widely used have no running water. This raises questions about menstrual hygiene and changing reusable pads during any school day.
Women & Girls: Have you had any backlash?
Nyanzi: I’ve been told the campaign’s ambitious. There’s been a lot of backlash from people who are shocked that an ordinary woman can question the power of the president’s wife. But Ugandans are saying, “We’re the people; let’s do what you failed to do.”
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.