PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Sylvia Tamale, Ph.D.
First woman Law Dean (Uganda)
By Israel K. Tamale
Prof. Sylvia Tamale is an accomplished academic, author, and human rights activist. She was born in 1962 into a middle-class Ugandan family as the firstborn of five. She attended Budo Junior School, Kabinja (1969-1975) for elementary studies, and Gayaza High School (1976-1982) before joining the prestigious Makerere University in 1982 where she completed her Bachelor of Laws with honors.
In 1988, she completed a Masters of Law at Harvard University in the United States. A year later, Tamale received a Diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Center (Kampala) where she earned the Ugandan Law Society Prize for best performance in the Bar Course. She has been an Advocate of the Courts of Judicature in Uganda since 1991, and in 1993, she won a Fulbright- McArthur scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology and Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation on the topic of female participation in Ugandan politics, entitled “When Hens Begin to Crow: Gender & Parliamentary Politics in Uganda,” was published as a book in 1999, quickly gaining popularity throughout Africa, and projecting her public activism to a larger scale.
Following the completion of her doctorate, Prof. Tamale returned to Makerere University as a senior lecturer, and played a leading role in the introduction of a policy against sexual harassment at the university, setting a blueprint for other African universities to follow suit. Several years later, she headed a committee that launched an inquiry into claims of sexual harassment of students by university lecturers and called for strengthening the policy she helped introduce. Tamale’s proposal to the Equal Opportunities Commission of Uganda that LGBTQ+ citizens be included in the term ‘minorities’ was met with severe backlash, with one of the leading newspapers in the country naming her the ‘Worst Woman of the Year’—a title she embraced as a badge of honor in the battle for social justice. This is not the only time that her advocacy has been cast in a negative light, but she has never been discouraged by those who wish to tarnish her reputation.
Elected Dean of the Makerere University Law School in 2004, Tamale was not only the first female to hold that position at her alma mater, but in the whole country. As dean, she founded the Law, Gender and Sexuality Research Project.
In 2009, the Ugandan Parliament introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which among other things, proposed that a death penalty be imposed for any violators. Prof. Tamale played a defining role in questioning the validity of the bill and garnering international attention on the matter, and in steering the process that saw the repeal of the law by the Constitutional Court of Uganda.
In 2013, she was appointed to the rank of full professor and delivered her inaugural lecture (the universal right of passage for any recognized professor) on the 28th of October 2016 making history yet again as the first female professor in Makerere to achieve this feat. Entitled “Nudity, Protests and the Law in Uganda”, she presented on the topic of naked protests, delving into the history of such demonstrations in Africa, dissecting the institution of the law, and highlighting how women use their bodies as a way to effect change.
As a multidisciplinary scholar, Prof. Tamale is the author of many research studies, articles, and books, including African Sexualities: A Reader, a collection of texts differing in nature that serve to push forward a discussion about sexualities and their role in African society, past and present. In 2020 she published the instant classic: Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Prof. Tamale has also won many awards in her lifetime of scholarship and activism, including the University of Minnesota Distinguished Leadership Award for Internationals in 2003, the Akina Mama wa Afrika Award for Human Rights Activism in Uganda in 2004, and the Inspirational African Feminists Award for being the first woman to hold the Dean of Law position at Makerere University in 2011, among others.
In addition to her responsibilities at Makerere University, she has been a visiting professor at many universities around the world and has served on several national and international boards, including the Uganda HIV/AIDS Alliance, the International Council on Human Rights Policy, and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.
Prof. Tamale is undoubtedly a change maker, persistently fighting for those denied fair and equal treatment. Regardless of how she has been portrayed by some, it cannot be denied that she is a trailblazer and that she is not one to sit down and be silent about the critical issues of the day. She is an inspiration to the next generation of lawyers, feminists, and activists across the African continent.