This is a guest post by Samantha Sarra. All photos are courtesy of Parisa Azadi.
(*Trigger warning: This post contains a graphic description of female genital cutting.)
International women’s day began as a call to arms to fight women’s inequality. More then a hundred years later, a vocal and active campaign demanding change against women’s oppression is still needed more then ever.
Let us not rest for one moment in the comfort of our advances without remembering the millions of women and girls worldwide who still require our solidarity and support.
Years of armed conflict and deeply rooted patriarchal traditions have left the women of Uganda marginalised and dominated by men. It is often silence that covers the discrimination and abuse of human rights. In honour of International Women’s Day, two women speak out on their experiences in the hopes that awareness is the first step in the long march towards justice and change.
Sashi Jayar (name changed at her request out of fear for the safety of her family still in Uganda) grew up in Africa. Her father was Ugandan and she spent her childhood in Kenya and Uganda until she was 13 years old in 1973 when then ruling Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled all the Indians out of the country. “I had a nice lifestyle there, it was warm and certain memories or foods like the Yucca plant will always remind me of my childhood home,” recalls Jayar, who is 53 now and lives in Canada with her girlfriend.
“I was a little tomboy. I was very naïve, I didn’t know there was such a thing as gay. I wasn’t exposed to much of anything and in Uganda, gender is not a discussion, you are male or female.” In recent years, Jayar has returned to Uganda many times to visit her mother who still lives there. “Homosexuality is a dangerous topic in Uganda. It is not a place where you can be open. People are scared to be out,” explains Jayar. “Being gay is illegal there and if you know someone is gay and you don’t tell on them, you are considered to be harbouring a criminal and you go to jail. Names have been printed in the papers and gay activists have been killed.”
In 2009, a group of American Evangelical Christians held a conference in Uganda claiming that Homosexuality posed a threat to the cohesion of African families. A month after the conference, Ugandan member of Parliament David Bahati proposed the Anti-Homosexual Bill, a legislative proposal which would allow for the execution of homosexuals and prison sentences for those who don’t turn them into the authorities. Commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays bill”, it was shelved after an international outcry from Human Rights organizations; however the bill was reintroduced by Bahati on February 7, 2012.
“I think Christian preachers have a lot of control over the people there,” says Jayar, “It is a country that struggles a lot and needs hope so they are easily influenced. It really bothers me when people use religion to do things that are harmful. They have so much power there and they could use the power for good, encouraging men to treat their wives well, look after their children or return to nature. But instead they preach abstinence. HIV was starting to be under control and now after the Christian anti-condom abstinence message, the rates are up again”.
Uganda had seen an impressive decrease in HIV infection rates, dropping from 30% in the early 90’s to under 6% in 2004. Rates began to rise again when the government stopped distributing condoms and abstinence only was advocated by the Evangelical churches in Uganda and the first Lady Janet Museveni.
“The Ugandan culture is very open and people are sexual, so abstinence does not work there. Most men have a wife and a girlfriend. It is an unfair society,” says Jayar. “Men have all the rights and do what they want and party and the women are left with all the responsibility. It is a male dominated society, but the women work much harder even though they are still seen as second class citizens.”
“Ugandan women are really smart and they need to make choices to take control of their own lives and not allow their independence to be taken away,” declares Jayar. “They need to realize they are not nothing and they have value. The women of Uganda are so hard working, so important to the country and they need to see themselves that way.”
Parisa Azadi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war. Growing up she witnessed the oppression and discrimination of women under the Islamic regime. Now 26 years old, she is a photojournalist who documents the lives of women and uses her powerful images to help bring awareness to human rights violations. She is committed to bringing to light under-reported stories.
In 2010-2011, Azadi spent eleven months in Uganda photographing the illegal practice of female genital mutilation and the violence and discrimination against women in the aftermath of the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.
Despite the fact that female genital mutilation (FGM) was made illegal by the Ugandan government in 2009, it is a cultural practice that is still preformed. The traditional rite of female circumcision is said to mark the transition of a girl into womanhood.
“As it is practiced today in the Eastern Ugandan District of Bukwo, FGM is justified as a mean’s of reducing a woman’s sexual desire, therefore ensuring she will be faithful to the man she marries,” explains Azadi who gained rare access to the ceremony. “Since it became illegal, the situation is almost worst now, because it is done behind closed doors, making the practice more dangerous, because it is done at night in the dark and the girls have no access to medical facilities.”
“In poverty-stricken societies where women have very few opportunities other than to be wives and mothers, old traditions die hard. On this particular night, I witnessed 8 girls getting circumcised,” recalls Azadi. “They were between 14-16 years old and they were all married. They were not forced to get FGM, it was by choice. They felt like they were considered outsiders because they were not circumcised. ‘I was always made fun of by the other women who have been cut. I always had to wait to be the last one to fetch water or milk cows,’ one Bukwo girl told me.”
“The ceremony took place from midnight to 6am. Everyone ran from village to village, singing traditional songs, whistling and drinking. Eventually everyone slowed down and gathered around a mat that was laid on the floor. The girls one by one, jumped on the mat and laid down on their backs. The experience was raw, unlike anything I had witnessed before. As the crowd looked on, they held their hands behind their heads and spread their legs. A local woman known as a surgeon rubs millet flour into their genitals to prevent friction. Then she cuts off each girl’s clitoris, using the same unsterilized knife each time despite the risk of infection or spread of HIV/AIDS. The girls struggle not to show pain as blood pours from their private parts onto the mat and the crowd cheers.”
“I didn’t take the camera off my face. I think sometimes a camera is a shield, it protects your emotions from what is really happening,” explains Azadi. “When all the girls were cut, they sat up while everyone stood there cheering them on. One girl looked right at me. She was in pain, her eyes were glazed over and empty. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry that I didn’t do anything to stop it. It’s upsetting to see what happens, but you can’t let everything affect you or you can’t do your job.”
According to the United Nations, Female Genital Mutilation is a practice that currently affects 100 million people worldwide. Women who have had FGM have much higher risks of complications during childbirth and their babies are more likely to die.
“The most difficult thing I saw in Uganda was the women suffering from HIV/AIDS”, recalls Azadi. “I spent some time in a slum in Namugongo, Kampala, visiting homes with a health care worker. Some of the women I visited were laying down on the floor in the dark dying. They had chosen to stay there dying because they were too ashamed to seek out medical help.”
“I met a woman named Teddy who had been suffering from AIDS for years and yet had never sought treatment. She was slumped over in her worn out chair, one of the only pieces of furniture in her little shack home. The local health care worker had tried many times to get her to seek treatment; she had no energy and could barely keep her eyes open. I took some pictures of her before we left and she finally agreed to get some treatment. I think about her and the other women I met often. I wonder if they are doing better, or worse, if they are still alive.”
Uganda is a country marked by struggle, but it is also a story of survival. The coming chapters remain unwritten and hopefully they will tell the tale of the end of marginalization and poverty and oppression and proclaim the beginning of equality and women’s rights and their participation in social, political and economical processes. That is the ending we need and there is only one way that outcome can be achieved and that is together, in solidarity with each other.
Samantha Sarra is a journalist, artist and activist living in Vancouver, British Columbia.