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Who should regulate the Ssenga industry?

Under the Constitution of Uganda, the right to belong to and practise whatever culture one wishes is guaranteed.

This right is also guaranteed under regional and international legal instruments Uganda is party to, with the one limitation that this culture should not be contrary to the rights of others such as women and children.

Thus the Ssenga practice, as part of the culture of Baganda, and adopted by other ethnicities in the country, is a right that those who wish to be involved are entitled to. Indeed when Doris Nabatanzi clocked 10, her mother took her to visit her Ssenga, in line with her Ganda culture.

Nabatanzi recalls that she was a little scared and apprehensive about some of the things her Ssenga told her. For example at that tender age, she was expected to elongate her labia minora.

“They used painful herbs (ekitengotengo) that were placed in fire,” she recalls. “I went through with it because my mother and Ssenga told me that if I didn’t, I would not get married.”

Nabatanzi says she was shocked to find out that, indeed, there are women without elongated labia who seemed to live quite normal lives. Growing up, she was told that a woman who does not go through the ritual is not a real woman.

“The Ssenga industry may not be so bad in itself. But in most cases the messages are skewed. It presents women as no more than sex objects,” opines Nabatanzi, now a doctor.

Thanks to the media, Ssenga messages now reach a wider audience through DVDs, newspapers, television, radio and social networking sites.  More women receive these messages, and men’s expectations are honed a certain way. The Uganda Press and Journalist Act enjoin media practitioners not to disseminate racist, sexist or any kind of disparaging information. Many of the messages the media allows Ssengas to air clearly violate this basic tenet.

“Every time you listen to a Ssenga programme, it tells women to act subservient to their partners. Last week, there was this Ssenga telling women to try and reach orgasm very fast because men do not like to ‘keep digging without fast benefits.’  What about us? Men are never told what they can do for us,” Vennie Taaka, a businesswoman in Kampala says.

I point out that there are now Ssenga and Kojja (maternal uncle) DVDs that instruct both men and women on how to please each other. Her reply is that the DVDs promote pornography instead of rational and scientific sex education. There is, however, no law to deal with pornography, especially that consumed by adults in the privacy of their home.

The Anti-Pornography Bill, currently awaiting parliamentary debate and approval, intends to tackle “any form of communication from literature to fashion or photography that depicts unclothed or under-clothed parts of the human body (such as breasts, thighs, buttocks or genitalia), that narrates or depicts sexual intercourse or that describes or exhibits anything that can lead to erotic stimulation.”

People like former ethics minister Dr Nsaba Buturo have celebrated the bill and warn that the days of those who deal in pornographic material are numbered. Critics and human rights activists, however, say the law is too wide, blurred, impracticable and draconian. How would they, for example, control people who are watching the erotic depictions in a Ssenga video?

How would they treat the consenting men and women who act in these videos to make a living? Elizabeth Naiga, an advocate and human rights defender, explains that people who act in Ssenga videos could only get redress if they can show that they were coerced.

“The women could argue and prove that the pimps made them get involved in acting pornography,” she says. Otherwise, it would be hard to penalize consenting adults and their willing audience. She equates criminalizing the distribution of Ssenga DVDs to criminalizing prostitution.

“The laws on prostitution remain impotent because of the same issue of implementation and the fact that it all happens in the privacy of people’s homes.”

Yet the fact remains that most of the human rights violations happen in the private sphere. Human rights activists like Professor Oloka Onyango and his wife Dr Sylvia Tamale have demonstrated that the personal is actually political.

Their argument is that the things that happen in the so-called private sphere actually affect the entire community, and it is dangerous to leave “private issues” unaddressed and unregulated. Other lawyers and human rights advocates agree.


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