By Natasha Hadijjah Sebunya
Priscilla: I remember, at the start of everything, I would want to address each and everything. Every time a misogynist would say something, I would be there.
Safina: “Teach him”
Priscilla: No, fight him! But… I have released myself from that.
“There is actually a quote from one of my…” Safina breaks off so that she can pull out her phone. “Hold on” she continues “there is a quote from Andrea Dworkin, she is a radical feminist from back then, she writes…”
We women. We don’t have forever. Some of us don’t have another week or another day to take time for you to discuss whatever it is that will enable you to go out into those streets and do something. We are very close to death. All women are. And we are very close to rape and we are very close to beating. And we are inside a system of humiliation from which there is no escape for us. We use statistics not to try to quantify the injuries, but to convince the world that those injuries even exist. Those statistics are not abstractions. It is easy to say, “Ah, the statistics, somebody writes them up one way and somebody writes them up another way.” That’s true. But I hear about the rapes one by one by one by one by one, which is also how they happen. Those statistics are not abstract to me. Every three minutes a woman is being raped. Every eighteen seconds a woman is being beaten. There is nothing abstract about it. It is happening right now as I am speaking. And it is happening for a simple reason. There is nothing complex and difficult about the reason. Men are doing it, because of the kind of power that men have over women do not have time to plead with men and say stop beating us.
Safina: So yeah, I am happy that the women at Frauen are rebellious.
It started as a tweet.
It is a Wednesday afternoon and I am sitting across from two of the three co-directors of Frauen, one of the strongest winds behind the tidal surge of the feminist movement in Kampala today. The third co-director Lisa Charity is away at university, completing her final exams.
Priscilla: Priscilla Kyosimire is my name. I am the co-director of Frauen Initiative in Uganda; I am a lawyer by profession. I just completed my post-graduate at the law center in Uganda.
Safina: My name is Safina Virani, I am also one of the co-directors of Frauen Initiative in Uganda. I am a feminist and I just finished my degree in International Relations with a concentration in Peace and Conflict at USIU.
Where does the name Frauen come from?
Priscilla: Initially we were Femme Power Uganda but the Uganda Registration Services Bureau ( URSB) refused the name on the grounds that femme power was controversial, it was political, and then for some reason they said “ femme”-
Safina: means lesbian.
Priscilla: … that we are pushing the LGBTQ agenda
Safina: and that power was too closely associated with People Power. Nicole, one of our members who is currently studying in Germany came up with Frauen. It means “women” in German. Now when you say Frauen, everyone knows exactly who you are talking about.
How did you all come together, were you all friends?
Priscilla: We weren’t friends
Safina: We were mutuals, I am not sure if you were on Twitter at that time but it was 2020.
Priscilla: end of 2019, the start of 2020
Safina: There was a lot of conversation happening around sexual violence.
Priscilla: During these conversations, we found that it was the same man that had abused several women –
Safina: It was our Me Too Moment in Uganda. So many women were abused, and the men just went on to live their lives, and nothing had ever happened to help these women. These women had never received medical care, psychological care
Priscilla: No legal options, nothing!
Safina: so we were like, you know what…. Initially, we had come together to be a sort of community-
Priscilla: a safe space, a place with no judgment, no victim-blaming, no gaslighting.
Safina: basically, what we had in mind was that if someone had been sexually assaulted, they could come and talk to us. But after a while, we realized that we needed and wanted to do more than be a safe space.
Priscilla: We needed to provide solutions. We had seen too many women that had been sexually assaulted.
Safina: Many of us had experienced it ourselves.
Safina: We looked for what we could provide from what was needed. We looked at emergency medical care, legal services, and psychological care. Honestly, it started as a tweet. Our sincere attempt to address something that was occurring so rampantly and with no foreseeable end. I do not think there is any other organization solely addressing sexual violence in Uganda today
The uses of anger.
What does the word rebel mean to you?
Priscilla: It could mean a lot of things… doing things in a way that is different from other people…in a way that they do not approve of.
Safina: I guess it depends on the context. I am a rebel. Even my dad keeps saying I am a rebel, even my mom…my mom is so worried that I will never bring home a husband.
Priscilla: Isn’t that everyone’s parents when you are a feminist?
Safina: my mom keeps telling me, that we are going to grow old together, she says that this one is going to end up with me here at home, she says that no man is going to sit at the table and deal with me , the way I am .. because I am very rebellious. My politics comes with me everywhere, to the guests, to the not kneeling. “ she is her father’s daughter, she is going to greet you standing”…and i think a lot of women in frauen are rebels as well, they go against the system, they are very vocal about it, they are not scared, even on Twitter, i do not think there is time for us to practice respectability politics.. we do not have the time –
Priscilla: to be cordial
Safina: I am happy that the women of frauen are very rebellious, because those women, …
Priscilla: and there is a higher level of calling out even each other,
Safina: no one is scared of anyone. Yes, you are the co-director, but if you said something, or did something to someone, they will call you out and that is how we keep each other in check, that is how we keep the organization in check, also when you attack them, I do not see any Frauen women bending over backward to sit down and listen to your attacks, even on Twitter I do not think Frauen women will stand there and be like, okay. They will sit down with a misogynist and take it?! And I like that for them because it appears to be the case, that when you are rebellious and angry then you keep on pushing and that is how you push the organization, when they are angry enough, they will push it…
Do you fear that that is not a good place to be mentally with anger, because it also drains and tires you…
Safina: it exhausts you and that is why we have spaces for people to fall back, where you nurse yourself, go back out there again because the fact is we are in a fight, we may not win it for us, but we can win it for our kids and for the kids that will come after us.
Priscilla: This is not something that will go away so I do not think that our anger will just fade.
Safina: so we get tired, we get angry, we fall back,
Priscilla: you know, you tell yourself you do not want to be angry but then you get a case of a nine-year-old who has been sexually assaulted by their father
Safina: and then you go on Twitter and there are men that are saying “what about your father”
Priscilla: I mean come on …
Safina: then it is…you want to be angry, let’s go…
Priscila: Sometimes you may find that it is the anger that is pushing you
Safina; honestly I think that it is the anger that has pushed me this far because there are so many days where I get tired, but then someone says something or does something and it pisses me off, and I realize that I have to get out of bed and do something. It may sound mentally unhealthy but it is anger that has brought me here.
Priscilla: I mean this is unhealthy
Safina: when you read “The seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls”, this is one of the necessary sins that women have to have. We need new spaces, spaces where women can go to people that understand them because there are a lot of times women have felt that they cannot fully express the true nature of their feelings towards people that raped them. Feelings of hate and loathing. Anger and hate is normal. It is okay to wish that your rapist could die. It is necessary that women have spaces that let them know that their anger is okay, that their anger is justified. The anger is pushing back against the systems, we have places for falling back, we have sisters with whom we can experience joy, affirmation, and look to be seen to be gentle, but the world that is abusing us needs to have returned to it, the anger in response to the very real oppression it brings. The rest of the world will alienate you; we have been sabotaged, deliberately misunderstood, and then misconstrued but it does not matter when you have a sisterhood within that gets you.
Priscilla: A system that can support you regardless.
Safina: Even when it’s just two or five people. That is enough.
Priscilla: there can be toxic sisterhoods of course, but when it is done right, it is enough.
Safina: Firstly, the URSB pushed us back by a week but you know.
<we all laugh>
Safina: but more seriously, when you look at sexual violence and the politics that facilitate it, you should expect that there will be pushback. We have found in our experiences that there are some organizations or partners that do not like the way we do things. “you are too radical”. I think it stems down to our praxis that insists on naming the problem. The problem is men. Who is rampantly raping women? People want to see a way around this, and part of that avoidance is allowing the problem to continue. It’s a misdiagnosis. You know, I remember the first space we had where we attempted to address the problematic ways in which the media portrayed the girls that were being defiled during the lockdown. Rather than focus on the rapists, newspapers splashed cover after cover of the pregnant victims with headlines that did not highlight the act as defilement. That space caused chaos for a week. There were spaces that opened up at 7 am to discuss our space. “ These feminists have become a problem”. Just yesterday Priscilla joked about it because these men had taken to calling me “feminist socala”
Priscilla: it was quite a chaotic weekend.
Safina: there was a triggered and perhaps guilty news anchor from NBS that came after us, and he had another space. And you know he has a lot of influence, he said we were “ attacking them” that we were attacking journalism. But it wasn’t really an attack, we were simply pointing out the problem with the way they were framing their stories, and because of the reach of his platform and the hold he has on people many more attacks followed. We received threats of rape.
Priscilla and Safina: Yes!
Prisclla: Yes. And because I was the one who was moderating the space, I was getting directing attacks. “ now you say men are raping you, we are going to real rape you”. I was shocked.
Safina: No. Real people with real numbers. There were even some …because we have our numbers on our social media so that women can call us directly in case of emergencies. So there were people who were sending us messages and I think it was Shania who received them and there were so traumatizing…and you read these messages and ask yourself what did we do. It was really bad back then…it’s still bad. There was a day a man called and said we are all damaged goods like the victims we receive. This was just a week ago. But you have to grow thick skin, because after that NBS saga, they roasted us for a week. <laughs> For weeks on, so many misogynistic spaces were opened around that. I remember even NBS wanted to have a space with me on it, and the other panelists were a bunch of misogynistic men and it’s like they were trying to set me up, and I was like no ways… No ways… So there has been a lot of pushback… And I would say that there has been a lot of pushback from older feminists as well.
Where do you think this pushback comes from?
Safina: Even if we are feminists, we are not immune to patriarchal behavior and culture. There are a lot of individual hierarchical leadership styles rooted in patriarchal systems that we are yet to unlearn. Capitalism and patriarchy’s deeply ingrained competitive narrative dictates that for one to shine, the other must fade away. That is why older feminists could be pushing back on younger feminists, at least this has been my experience. Frauen has been sabotaged and pushed out of certain spaces. I think that perhaps they are feeling threatened because indeed there are limited resources and we do recognize that some of the ease we experience is because of the work, sometimes even thankless work that they did. But we need to center more on possibilities for genuine co-leadership across generations, power-sharing, and abundance rather than competition, now.
How does the pushback manifest?
Priscilla: You will be genuinely attempting to do something good, and then you will hear a completely distorted take on what it is you are doing and it takes you back.
Is it holding you accountable or is it straight-up attacks?
Safina: I remember one time we partnered on a project with the French embassy, keep in mind we were not getting any money from the embassy. We had one prominent feminist dismiss our project because of the supposed collaboration with France. Of course, I can understand the real threat of imperialism and co-option, but for the work, we are doing, with a direct and immediate, urgent problem, what is the alternative? I will be honest with you, while we crowdsource. It is simply not enough money. A rape kit is 80,000 shilling. The last time we paid PEP, it was 150,000 shillings. I understand criticism but when there are no alternatives we can think of and there are no alternatives being presented with the criticism, what are we supposed to do? I wish that they would send us solutions. So many people have disagreements with us, but I wish that they would send us solutions
Priscilla: send it, because straight up, we started this organization by ourselves, we used to get money from our own pockets,
Safina: to pay for Pep, to pay for police support, it used to be our own money and we are all students… the time is fine, but when a rape victim comes and tells you that they need help, I do not think you can sit them down and say, listen I cannot pay for your Pep. This is a life or death thing. You cannot excuse yourself from the responsibility by saying you do not have the money, and keep in mind that PEP, it is time-sensitive.
Priscilla: especially the rape kit, you can’t say you will get it next week, you need to pay for it now. Immediately,
Safina: and then there have been older organizations that have sabotaged opportunities for us to show up at different spaces, I would not say any names.
Priscilla: I will not name any names because they know themselves
Safina: But it’s been tough, there has actually been a feminist that lost her job because she stood up for us in her organization. She lost her contract. We tend to tell our colleagues, anyone that works at Frauen you know, do not mind these things, everyone has their own opinion, there will always be pushback, even from the families you are trying to help, I remember there was a family whom we were trying to help whose dad let go of the case because the guy got him a suit, and he was like, you know what stay in your lane, this is my daughter…
Priscilla: I would say that the police is actually a very huge challenge. In order to help a victim, you need to go to the police. You have to have a rape kit done and you should expect that the police will gaslight the victim. You are going to have to watch. You are going to have to bite your tongue. If you are rude, you are not going to get that rape kit done.
Safina: So you are watching them tear the victim apart and then you have to put them back piece by piece, over and over again, because you have to keep going back to the police station over and over again for the same statement over and over again.
Priscilla: It is very tiresome and very stressful
How do you take care of your mental health?
Safina: Suck it up ( laughs )
Suck it up, and we have formed a sisterhood as frauen, so we keep on repeating to each other “ do not let these things get to you” because a lot of times, people will send us tweets and documents and comments and you know our work, and we tell our members that the fact that you are riling up people’s feelings you are sort of rustling up peoples feathers it means you are doing things, so we keep on telling them, focus on the good work that you are doing.. Ignore this, treat it like background noise,
Priscilla: white noise.
What are your future plans?
Priscilla: I plan on making the Frauen initiative a full-time job. I would really like to focus and build Frauen and make us reachable to everyone in the entire country. I want to reach everyone in the North, the South, the East, far deep in the rural areas, because the first case we handled was in Gulu-
Safina: and we were based here and in lockdown-
Priscilla: so, we want to reach each and every woman in Uganda
Safina: And I think Insha Allah regionally because we have had a few cases from Kenya, Tanzania
Safina: and they have chosen come to us, but we plan to grow here fully and then expand God wiling. All of us are volunteers, we do not get paid, so we are really passionate about this cause.
What kind of support would you like to feel from society?
Safina: When we come up with a case, instead of pushing back, how about we all focus on the victims. I tell you. the way that victims and women are treated in our society. Our biggest support can come from the way that victims are treated in society because when the victims are pushed back they fall back on us in turn, and we have no one to fall back on. There is only so much one organization can do. We do not want them to relapse and relapse is something that has been recurring more and more lately. We need a supportive society. You do not have to support us, but may you please support the victims.
Priscilla: The society is so harsh to victims,
Safina: and it leaves us having to pick up the pieces everytime. But before I get into all that, I would like to appreciate the internal support system that we have. This sisterhood is the engine. The internal support has played a lot because we hold each other up as feminists.
Additionally, there have been close partners, close friends, some feminists like I would say Faith, Pesh, they are always there, they are always ready ,” okay what is the problem.” they are always ready to get down. “Hello, how can i help you”, At 3am even like Faith who even regardless of the time if you have a case that you have no idea where to take, you pick up the phone, and you call her. Faith, she will be there, she will connect you with different organizations, like let me connect you, let me pick up the phone, let me get back to you the next day…
Priscila: and also we are very grateful to Women’s Pro Bono,
Safina: everything legal,
Priscilla: they have helped us push, even when we are threatened, we get lawsuit threats, you know?
And there have been people, private donors; because there have been times where we do not have money but then someone comes with a case, and we need to pay bills at the hospitals, so we have reached out to friends, and they will always pullup with money for that. .. I do not know how long it will last because it’s really not sustainable,
Priscilla: we cannot continue with that.
Safina: because what happens if a private donor drops out. But we have also experienced organizational support from places like UN Women, the French Embassy, from specific women in those organizations like Lisa from the UN embassy, every time I have an idea… a concept note, she is always there for me, because we are trying to have …as feminists that do this work we have seen how mentally draining it is, so we are trying to sort of have a feminist brunch where feminists, sit down, come together, no stress. No work for a day. You know come here, have a few drinks, listen to nice music, dress how you want to without people harassing you
Safina: because you know… we want young people, young feminists… because we never had the opportunity to network with older feminists… so we want younger feminists to network, to know these people so that we can build their organizations, so when we came up with that idea, I sent it to Lisa who thought this was brilliant, advised me on how to edit and now the plan is in motion… As well as Claire from the French embassy who gave me a few ideas about the space from how we can build up the event to who can help us. Plus there are all these people who will appreciate the work that we are doing and simply shoot a message saying “ that is amazing” and that is enough for me.