Cataloguing and fighting against sexual assault in Uganda.
Story and photo by Alice Rowsome
Walking through a petrol station in shorts after a hike with her friend in 2015, Lindsey Kukunda—the founder of Not Your Body, an online platform that gives voice to those affected by sexual harassment in Uganda—caught a group of men’s attention.
Abusive speech turned to violence as the men began grabbing her, tugging at her clothes and pushing her around.
“They were about to do the stripping,” Kukunda, 33, told me, beer in hand under a bamboo canopy in a cafe in Kampala, Uganda.
“I got scared. So I went to a police officer and asked him to ask the men to leave me alone. He looked at me up and down said, ‘Isn’t this what you wanted?’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘Are you serious?’”
The next day the police refused to let her file a report. The only information they were interested in was the length of her shorts at the time of the incident.
“The officers kept saying, ‘If we go to court, you’re going to have to answer questions about the size of your shorts,’” Kukunda says. “‘When we go to court, I will refuse to answer questions about the size of my shorts,’ I told them. ‘And we shall see how that affects the case.’”
Nearly two years later, after countless trips to the police station and no action, Kukunda is now looking to sue the entire Ugandan police force.
“I’m like a dog on a leash. I’ll keep coming back,” she says, cracking up with laughter. While most in her situation may have given up months ago, Kukunda’s battle has, on the contrary, fired her up.
Her story is all too common in Uganda. And elsewhere. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)—the United States’ largest anti-sexual violence organization—every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, but only six out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison.
While traveling back from northern Uganda—where I was reporting on deforestation and eco-entrepreneurship by the South Sudan border in the world’s largest refugee camp—I spoke with Kukunda on a rainy day in Kampala about Not Your Body, her blog-turned-grassroots-movement.
Alice Rowsome: How did Not Your Body begin?
Lindsey Kukunda: Because of my Hater With Humour blog [in which Kukunda often documented instances of harassment], everyone was calling me a hater, which I am. Ha, I don’t mind. But people kept saying: “You know, Lindsey, you are the only one complaining. This isn’t what happens to women. We are empowered.”
So I said, “Okay, I’m going to challenge you.” That’s when Not Your Body was born.
I asked women to share their stories about sexual harassment. Everyone was telling me I wouldn’t get any stories, but I got a lot of terrible stories. Stories that went beyond the normal thing of men hissing at women, which is so normal in Uganda. This was extreme.
Some girls were brave enough to say, “When I was eight years old, my neighbor touched my breasts,” or “When I was ten years old, a man touched my vagina.”
All of them had the same reaction. They hadn’t reported the men to the police. They all thought they had done something wrong. Not the guy. As more stories were coming through, I thought that perhaps we needed to become more than a blog but an organization, to discuss and deal with all this.
AR: Women came to you with stories. Did some come to you for support?
LK: They did—especially the women that are not considered moral, according to Ugandan standards. Some women were coming up to me and saying, “Look I can’t go and ask my family for help. They say that my lifestyle is immoral.” But it’s difficult. I can’t become too intertwined. Otherwise I may be seen as a manipulator.
What I want is for women to have the courage to fight against the system, and this cannot happen without women breaking away from the need for societal support. I want women to understand that their body is not other people’s body. I tell them, “When you die, people are not going to remember that you dressed right. They won’t care. It has to be about you in the end.”
Ultimately, I would like more women to have self-love, self-awareness and self-strength. That is how things will change.
AR: Speaking of clothes, the Ministry of Public Affairs released a dress code in July for government employees. Do you think this kind of legislation offers a justification for people sexually assaulting and harassing women?
LK: Definitely. According to this legislation, women bring sexual harassment onto themselves because of the way they dress. We have to stop tolerating that. It gives Ugandan men excuses.
If women went around slapping men, hitting men, doing whatever they want to men and said, “Oh, but he doesn’t give me sex. He doesn’t cook for me, etc.,” would it be allowed? No. I don’t think so.
For example, when the public stripping in Kenya happened [three years ago], people came out onto the street and even a woman [member of Parliament] went into Parliament wearing a mini skirt to make a point. And the men who stripped and robbed the Kenyan woman ended up getting sentenced to death [in July of this year].
Meanwhile in Uganda, we are telling women they are responsible for sexual harassment because of how they dress. Uganda has such a long way to go—a very long way to go.
AR: This mentality seems really entrenched. When did you personally realize that the way women were being treated wasn’t right?
LK: I never thought it was right. I was first touched by a strange man when I was 14 years old. I’d just moved to Uganda. It was the first time I saw men touching and assaulting women in public. I’d never seen this. I’d come from Libya. I know Gaddafi had his problems, but that behavior wasn’t common there.
I remember this one time, though. I was in the taxi park and this man said, “Jump in baby!” I was like, “What the fuck? Are you serious? How is everyone allowing grown men to call teenage children out in public? How is this normal?”
AR: But in fact defilement [act of having sex with a girl under 18, while rape is having sex with a woman without her consent, usually by force] is very common in Uganda, right?
LK: It is the second highest crime in Uganda, according to the latest police report published in 2014. It is extremely common and normal for grown men to sleep with children. Pedophiles are common and accepted in this country, and that is one of our biggest problems. I swear to god it’s normal and accepted. I know someone whose family got them a 15-year-old wife. It’s normal, so normal.
AR: Speaking of children, the sex education program was recently scrapped by the government. You sat on a panel to design the new one. Can you tell me more about that?
LK: They scrapped it the way George Bush scrapped it. They said it was promoting immorality and teaching kids that masturbation is normal and all these things that normal teenagers are supposed to be learning.
I had a problem with almost every single page, to be honest. They’d see my hand go up every two minutes and be like, “Ah goddam, what is it again, Kukunda?”
But honestly, how can they add marriage to the curriculum? “Marriage isn’t going to die if you don’t teach in school!” I protested. “Take it off the curriculum!”
Because, you see, teaching marriage in school is not about a union between men and women. It is focused on women being good, submissive wives. I asked them to remove that nonsense.
AR: What else does Not Your Body like to do to challenge society’s entitlement to the bodies and lives of women?
LK: Not Your Body has partnered with Barefoot Law. Every week I ask them a legal question that I think might benefit the women on my forum, and then I publish their answers. I really want people here to start using them. It’s important for women to know the law so that they can use it to protect themselves.
AR: And what’s next?
LK: TV shows. I’ve been invited onto two already. But on Monday I’m meeting a program manager to pitch to him. I want my own show. On any TV station [laughs].
I just want a platform to challenge all these issues so that maybe in 20 to 30 years, kids will start to think differently about these things. My generation and the above one is gone. It’s too late. They’re gone.
To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I thought I was just going start a blog detailing these stories of sexual harassment, and now I’m suing the whole police force, so who knows what will happen next.
But I need help. I have girlfriends who have struggled opening up their own businesses. They say, “Hang in there; if you survive the first five years then you’ll be fine.” You have to hang in there. It’s supposed to be hard I guess. It’s not supposed to be easy.
Alice Rowsome is a 24-year-old French-British freelance writer, filmmaker and photographer with a focus on women’s rights, forced migration and environmental issues related to conflict and climate change. She is currently writing for VICE and filming a new short documentary in Tripoli, Lebanon on the city’s women recycling initiative—a story of peace, trash and sass. She graduated with a Masters in Arabic and International Relations from the University of St Andrews in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @alice_rowsome and Instagram @alice.rowsome, and check out her work on alicerowsome.com.