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Gender, Police Brutality, and Public Health in Uganda During the COVID-19 Pandemic

*By Esther Semakula

Photo credits: Daily Monitor, Uganda

The negative impact of the spread of COVID 19 has disproportionately affected economically disadvantaged women. The antecedent measures being put in place to contain it has put such women at greater risk of human rights abuses. In Uganda, images circulated on different social media of female street vendors being beaten by police after they disregarded bans on movement and utilization of public transport.[1] Such directives threatened many women's livelihood and ability to feed themselves and their families.

Human rights abuses while executing measures to curb COVID 19 have been noted in different countries[2] and Uganda isn't unique in this regard.[3]

The question that remains to be answered is whether given the severity of this disease such abuse of basic human rights is justifiable to curtail the spread of this epidemic. In combating epidemics, any response that isn't grounded in observance of human rights is ineffective. The state has an obligation to prevent threats to public health and in fulfillment of this obligation, the law recognizes that governments can restrict the enjoyment of certain rights.[4] However, such restrictions cannot be extended to the non-derogable right or freedom from torture, cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment[5] and hence police worked in excess of the law when it subjected street vendors to beatings.

Photo credits: Daily Monitor, Uganda

Women carry the heaviest burden of the role of primary caregivers. Given this, empowering them to take care of their health and that of others would empower the family unit and the community at large. The government should hence remove all barriers that prevent poor and vulnerable women from protecting themselves and others from the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most significant barriers to women’s development and well-being are measures that remove the ability to earn a living and access food, and these two rights are closely linked to the right to health. A threat to livelihood inevitably undermines any public health interventions. Women who are deprived of accessing food and other basic necessities are prone to breaking directives on movement and hence exposing themselves and the rest of the population to the risk of contracting the virus. For the current governments' directives and public health care measures to be successful, governments must mitigate and provide welfare interventions to these women.

Photo credits: Daily Monitor, Uganda

The right to information is interlinked to the right to health.[6] A lack of information on the disease, government restrictions and interruptions in services will lead to non-compliance by women especially the economically vulnerable ones who don't have access to different media platforms. Information needs to be accessible on different platforms, and in languages that different women understand. It needs to be tailored to different levels of literacy. The government needs to aggressively combat the presence of fake news and misinformation. Coercive and, or illegal methods of enforcement are counterproductive. As Uganda has learned through its fight against HIV/AIDS and other epidemics, public health interventions require community-centered and informed responses that embrace solidarity and kindness, prioritizes women and empowers them to take action to protect themselves and others from the epidemic.


* Esther Semakula. Director, International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), East African Chapter

** The views expressed in this entry belong to the author.


[1] [2], [3] [4] Article 4 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 43 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda. [5] Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of human rights, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 24 and 44 of the 1995 Constitution. [6] Article 19, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda.


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