KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–Rita Achiro, executive director of Uganda Women’s Network, an advocacy and lobbying network, says last week’s protest march by hundreds of women wasn’t aimed at threatening the government.
Instead, she describes it as a peaceful show of the women’s demand for the government’s accountability.
"This is not a politically motivated march," her group said in a press statement, "and that is why we are dressed in white because white shows peace. We demand strong policy measures to address issues of food security, unemployment, health and education." The women have handed the statement to Margaret Sekaggya, a Ugandan lawyer and current U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, who was at the demonstration last week.
Sekaggya promised to send the statement to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
During the demonstration, hundreds of women marched for justice and peace and protested rising food and fuel prices and the recent brutality by police and other security operatives.
Wearing white for peace, they banged empty saucepans with sticks and wooden spoons as they walked in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
‘Empty Saucepan’ Symbol
"The empty saucepan is a symbol that women don’t have food," says Ruth Odhiambo Ochieng, executive director of Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, a women’s resource center in Kampala.
The protesters also condemned excessive use of force in dispersing people protesting against inflation.
"For a country without bread, bullets cannot be food," said one of their placards. Others read:
"Stop shooting our babies."
"Women of Uganda want peace."
"Fuel prices must go down."
"Respect women’s bodies during arrests."
They spoke out against the violence that has grown rampant here since mid-April, when Ugandans began protesting inflation with Walk to Work days spurred by the nonpartisan group, Activists for Change.
Government forces have killed about 10 people during these protests, according to Human Rights Watch, the international human rights organization based in New York. Police acknowledge that more than 100 people have been injured and more than 600 arrested countrywide since April, Human Rights Watch has reported.
Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, inspector-general of the Uganda Police Force, has appeared on television to say that police have been responding to parliament’s call to restrain in brutality against demonstrators. Local police have been silent on the issue.
President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly said that protesters wouldn’t topple his government, which human rights defenders say should launch an independent investigation into the police brutality. 14-Percent Inflation
The country’s consumer price index, a key measure of inflation, is more than 14 percent and has more than doubled since February, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. The cost of maize, a staple food, has increased by 114 percent during the past year, according to an April World Bank report.
Amid rising prices, government spending has attracted negative attention.
Campaign spending is not officially reported here, but Andrew Mwenda, editor of The Independent, a weekly Ugandan magazine, estimates that the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, spent approximately $350 million – largely of state funds – to secure the presidential seat in the February elections, according to Foreign Policy, a U.S. magazine. Meanwhile, more than half of Ugandans live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day, according to UNICEF.
"We have witnessed a series of disturbing events in which we have seen the state and its law enforcement agencies respond in a brutal and often excessive manner to citizens’ demand for government action to address increased prices, cost of living, poverty, inequality in distribution of resources, corruption and the apparent disregard of pressing priorities in allocation of government expenditure," reads the Uganda Women’s Network’s statement, which was circulated before and during the demonstration.
One activist, who declined to give her name for security reasons, says they have no one to turn to for help.
"We call upon the government that women of Uganda are tired of tear gas, violence and we are scared of police," she says. "We cannot run to them when we need help."
Reminders of the Constitution
Lawyers from the International Federation of Women Lawyers, a nonprofit organization, reminded the government of the constitution.
"The state is obliged to respect, promote, protect and fulfill the rights of its citizens as enshrined in the 1995 constitution and other regional and international treaties to which Uganda is signatory," says one lawyer, who declined to give her name for safety reasons.
Another lawyer, who also declined to give her name for safety reasons, called for the government’s respect of the rule of law and the court.
"Otherwise Uganda is heading towards a failed state," she says.
Before the march, police warned the women to not make any political statements.
"We were warned not to make any political statements, but the food that we put on the table is a political statement," Jessica Nkuuhe, an activist, says. "The tear gas, high fuel prices are political statements."
Earlier this month, more than 300 lawyers organized a three-day strike to protest police violence against demonstrators protesting rising food and fuel prices, according to The Associated Press. They said the brutality infringed on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. They also spoke out against the arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has run unsuccessfully for the presidency four times and has been arrested several times for leading Walk to Work protests.
Besigye, who has said the 2011 election in which he lost to Museveni was rigged, returned last week from Kenya, where he received treatment for his eye, wounded when police fired tear gas at him before his latest arrest, according to The Associated Press.
Nearly 40 of his supporters were injured in protests in Kampala last week, according to the Red Cross, as Besigye returned from Kenya and Museveni was sworn in.
Museveni has said multiple times that demonstrators would not overthrow his government, which came to power in 1986.
Beatrice Lamwaka, from Kampala, Uganda, joined Global Press Institute’s Uganda News Desk in June 2010. She is on the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize and loves telling stories that are read and heard by others.
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