Herself a victim of cyberbullying, Lindsey Kukunda fights online violence against women in Uganda

Ugandan activist, Lindsey Kukunda. Image used with her permission.

Women journalists, feminists, activists, and human rights defenders around the world are facing virtual harassment. In this series, global civil society alliance CIVICUS highlights the gendered nature of virtual harassment through the stories of women working to defend our democratic freedoms. These testimonies are published here through a partnership between CIVICUS and Global Voices.

A volatile election in Uganda in January led to President Yoweri Museveni gaining a sixth term in office. In the lead-up to the vote, opposition leaders were targeted, protesters were violently dispersed and journalists were attacked.

Against this backdrop of human rights violations, the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people remain precarious. Museveni used anti-gay rhetoric during the election campaign to scapegoat the community and last year a group of LGBTQI+ youths was rounded up, beaten, and detained during COVID-19 under the pretense of containing the virus. 

More than half of Ugandan women experience physical violence, while one in five is subjected to sexual violence; many also face psychological abuse, forced and early marriage and female genital mutilation. In 2014, Uganda introduced a law against pornography that has been used to target and prosecute women, especially women whose nude photos have been shared online without their consent.

Lindsey Kukunda is a feminist, writer and human rights defender. She is also the managing director of Her Empire, a feminist organization that runs two programmes: Not Your Body, which focuses on challenging society’s entitlement to women’s bodies and by extension their lives, and The Mentor’s Network, which promotes digital safety and literacy for women. 

Lindsey Kukunda tells her story: 

I cry when no one is looking

I’m a hypocrite.

I profess to fight against online violence, and many women look to me as an inspiration. They tell me I give them courage, I give them confidence, and I inspire them to stand up for themselves.

But I cry when no one is looking.

My worst experience of online violence was when I launched a social campaign to challenge racist establishments in Uganda—establishments that reeked of colonialism and white entitlement, and discrimination against Ugandans.

I thought it was obvious that this was wrong. I stood to be corrected. I received abuse and insults on social media, radio and print. I was in a car once listening to a radio station discussing my campaign when a female radio host I once worked with referred to me as “someone with an inferiority complex.”

I will never forgive that woman.

Today, one of those bars was shut down and the other has a sign saying “No racism allowed” at the entrance. I paid for that win. Oh, I paid for that win big time. I was told to “stop trying to worship white people by going to their bars.” I was told to mind my own business. Someone put up a picture of me and started a conversation about my breasts being small.

It is a lonely, painful journey and I feel deep envy whenever I see posts from people saying how much their family, for example, is proud of them and how they would not survive without their support. It is not unusual to find activists alienated by friends, family and society in general. Unless, of course, the activist dies and receives lovely eulogies about their efforts, hard work and perseverance in the face of hardship, and so on. 

Ugandan activist, Lindsey Kukunda. Photo used with permission.

Being a feminist has turned me into “an angry person” for which I no longer apologize. When a man has a cause for men, he is applauded. When a woman has a cause for women, she is attacked by both men and women. To each their own, and I found that for me, being unapologetic and staying true to myself was the only way to survive. I am now slowly deleting Facebook “friends” who are not close friends or colleagues because I find myself abused by them in posts as they claim to know me so well.

The painful truth is that I know them, and to see them using their apparent familiarity with my nature to tell the world that they know me well enough to label me a b*tch made me realize that I could take steps. I opened up a professional page where I hope they will go once I have deleted them.

There are many things I have done to combat violence against women online for which there is not enough space to list here. I can say that by using my voice, I do inspire women. My organization is currently setting up an action group of like-minded individuals which I know will bolster feminists, both men and women, as it is harder to intimidate a group of people than it is to abuse just one person.

I am today an unapologetic radical activist and embracing that, accepting that, has improved my mental health greatly. I no longer feel the need to explain or defend myself. My new motto is, “If you have a problem with my methods, it’s your problem. Leave me out of it.”

I accuse Ugandan media of promoting violence against women by the way they cover their stories and by the stories that they undermine. Stories of “revenge porn” are not written in support of the victim but as entertainment and blame. Media houses do not advertise the men who abuse women nor do they condemn abuse openly.

The law does not help. Uganda has allowed religion to influence politics and well, isn’t that enough to explain how much work feminists have to do? The anti-pornography law labels women as criminals for sexually attracting men in any fashion, and it is up to the men to decide how we are “bothering” them with our sexuality. When a man leaks a woman’s nude pictures, she becomes the center of conversation while the man lives his life with his head held high. We need to speak with our oppressors in a language they understand.

I am starting a project where I focus on abusers, advertise them and shame them into apologizing or staying on the internet forever as an abuser, because enough is enough. As far as I’m concerned, this is war, and I’m collecting generals. 

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