Uganda drops anti-porn law after backlash by women's rights groups

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A controversial law against pornography in Uganda -- which led to attacks on women wearing miniskirts -- has been scrapped after parts of it were deemed unconstitutional. Women's rights campaigners hailed the decision saying the law had "done more harm than good".

The 2014 Anti-Pornography Act criminalised any activity deemed pornographic, anything from wearing short skirts to writing risque songs. It had led to an increase in public harassment of women and revenge porn.

Uganda’s constitutional court annulled the law on Monday.

A panel of five judges unanimously ruled that sections of the law that defined pornographic offences, including the ban on "indecent" clothing, were "inconsistent with, or in contravention of, the constitution of the republic of Uganda".

Society would not be harmed, it said, by the lifting of certain bans on acts or material eliciting sexual excitement.

The panel also instructed the government to pay half of the legal costs to the women's and human rights groups that petitioned the court to review the law.

It also struck down the powers of the nine-member Pornography Control Committee, set up in 2017 to enforce the law.

More harm than good

When the legislation was introduced in 2014, it was officially to prohibit the spread of pornography, which the government said would help protect women and children.

But it has been mainly used to target and prosecute women, not least those whose intimate photos have been shared online without their consent.

In 2018, Ugandan fashion model Judith Heard was arrested in Uganda after naked photos of her were leaked.

"I'm very happy because we will be able to cut down on revenge porn which has been on the rise in Uganda," human rights lawyer and activist Angella Assiimwe told RFI. "Judith Heard and many other women have had issues with videos being leaked by ex-lovers or people wanting to [extort] money."

Assiimwe, who took part in the petition, says the very broad and vague nature of the legislation made it open to misinterpretation.

"It has led to many women being attacked in public, undressed, especially those who were putting on short miniskirts," she said, referring to the assaults on women in Kampala in 2014-15 which led to street protests.

"The law did more harm than good because it promoted violence against women. Even in the daytime you'd be open to being sexually harassed by passers-by just because of the way you're dressed. So it also led to the body policing of women."

Artists arrested

Under the law, song lyrics and music videos could also be considered pornographic.

In 2015, a young Ugandan pop singer Jemimah Kansiime -- who performs as Panadol Wa'basajja ("medicine for men" in Luganda) -- became the first person to be prosecuted under the law.

She faced a 10-year prison sentence for a racy music video which Ethics Minister and former Catholic priest Simon Lokodo considered “very obscene and vulgar”.

Criminal proceedings against Kansiime were paused awaiting the constitutional court’s ruling.

The government's lead counsel Imelda Adong told AFP they were studying the ruling and would respond in due course.

Uganda is the only predominantly Roman Catholic country in Africa and activists had long complained the anti-porn act was evidence of growing conservative influence. Hundreds of evangelical churches have sprung up in the country in recent years.

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