Ruth Nabembezi is the founder and CEO of Ask Without Shame. Ruth grew up in an orphanage home in Uganda. Her parents and beloved sister passed away because of AIDS. When Ruth’s sister developed severe skin rashes, the neighbors in her village believed that she was demon possessed and was taken to a witch doctor to be cleansed but died. Ever since, Ruth developed a strong frustration for people in Uganda not having the right information in regard to sexuality. While Ruth was at Mulago Paramedical School she started working on breaking shame and taboo when it comes to sexuality. She has been able to present and exhibit at the biggest IT expo “CeBIT” in Germany. Ruth became a Global Change maker, Lioness of Africa, and the BBC nominated her as a finalist for the Outlook Inspirations Award. Ruth won the African Woman Award in the category of Young Change Maker, Appsafrica Award in the categories of Social Impact and the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. https://fellows.echoinggreen.org/fellow/ruth-nabembezi/
Gender Equality Statistics
In Uganda, as of February 2021, 34.9% of seats in parliament were held by women. 34% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 111.4 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2017, down from 131.5 per 1,000 in 2015. In 2018, 26.1% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Women and girls aged 15+ spend 14.6% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 8.8% spent by men. In 2018, 55.1% of women had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. Employed population below international poverty line. Age 15+: female (38.5%); male (33.9%) Unemployment rate. Age 15+: female (11.7%); male (8.4%) Prevalence of severe food insecurity in the adult population (%): female (74.9%); male (78.1%) Literacy rate, age 15+: female (76.5%); male (70.8%) Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments: 34.9% Proportion of women in managerial positions: 31.8% UN Women (https://data.unwomen.org/country/uganda)
Interview with Ruth Nambembezi (22 March 2023)
Since the buzz created by the #MeToo Movement, have you noticed any changes in Uganda regarding taking action for women who have experienced sexual violence?
Okay, thank you for the first question. I recently learned about the MeToo movement and that it took place in 2006. At that time, I was still in primary school, around 11 or 12 years old. I didn't really understand what it was all about. I only learned about it when you sent me the interview questions. I was at an orphanage at the time and was very shy. To be honest, I didn't even know what activism meant. Therefore, I cannot speak much about its impact. However, I believe that it had some impact, and it could have been one of the steps that led to changes in how women are treated in Uganda. Every action has a positive intention, so I'm sure there was something positive that came out of it.
Studies have noted a rise in sexual violence against girls and women during the COVID-19 pandemic, both globally and specifically in Uganda. How has your work been impacted, both during the pandemic and in its aftermath?
As you mentioned, there was a significant increase in sexual and domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic because everyone was forced to stay at home. Many people were affected by this, as movements were limited. Ask Without Shame, an organization that provides support related to condoms and contraceptives, received many messages from people seeking help. However, due to the lockdown, it was difficult to transport condoms to those who needed them. Additionally, our community-based outreach programs were halted, which negatively impacted our ability to help clients without smartphones who were not able to access medical experts.
Furthermore, the organization's administration was affected as funding was cut due to the shift in focus to managing the COVID-19 crisis. Even after the worst of the pandemic, we are still struggling to raise funds as many resources have been diverted to managing other crises brought about by the pandemic.
Do you anticipate the passing of a law in Uganda that would provide greater justice for women who have experienced sexual harassment? In an ideal world, what would this law entail and encompass? How would its effects be realized in the daily lives of Ugandan men and women?
The GBV law in Uganda, which advocates for justice for women, has been implemented to some extent. Additionally, another law was passed by Parliament in 2019 and officially passed in May 2021. This Sexual Offenses Bill is comprehensive and covers various areas, including social media, exposing children to pornographic materials, and more. However, the President has yet to approve the bill due to his belief that it is redundant with the GBV law already in place. The law is perfect in theory, but the implementation is hindered by corruption and bribery. Law enforcement officers are often bribed, especially by men, leading to a lack of punishment even in cases of assault. Despite this, the law has the potential to empower Ugandan women if enforced properly.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
In which sectors of the population is this (GBV) more common? Younger or older? Urban or rural? Smaller communities or bigger cities like Kampala?
It is very common among young people, especially girls, young women, and children. This is particularly prevalent in Kampala, where adolescents are highly exposed and face numerous challenges. However, in rural areas, traditional conservatism still exists, which can be both good and bad, but at least it provides some level of stability.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Do you believe that gender-based violence in Uganda is a product of tradition, or is it something new? Has it existed in the past? What are the reactions of the Ugandan government and society to this issue?
To some extent, efforts are being made to end gender-based violence, but they are not enough. Women need to be empowered more because the gender gap is still significant. Even financially empowered women face gender-based violence in the form of sexual or physical assault, especially in marriage.
Gender-based violence is prevalent in villages due to conservative culture and patriarchal norms. Society and patriarchy dictate what women should and should not do. Women need to be educated about their rights, values, and power to prevent taking themselves for granted. The information fed into their minds that they are meant to be submissive to men and under their control is incorrect.
Despite some progress, there is still a significant gender gap that needs to be addressed.
My next question is about the stigmatization of gender equality in Uganda, which you briefly touched upon. However, I would also like to know your perspective on the stigmatization of sexual education and whether it is similar or different from the stigmatization of gender equality.
In Uganda, sexual education is not included in the academic curriculum, so very few schools offer it. Young people lack the opportunity to learn about sexuality from school, and even parents shy away from discussing it with their children due to cultural taboos. Most of the youth end up searching for information on the internet or getting it from their peers. Even with the introduction of comprehensive sex education in schools, the government is only emphasizing prevention. For instance, when it comes to STIs, one of the most stigmatized topics, they teach only preventive measures and assume that youth/adolescents are not affected and are safe or healthy. They teach them to prevent STIs but do not cover broader aspects such as testing or treatment.
I feel that sex education is not receiving the required attention, even with the introduction of comprehensive sex education in schools. The STIs topic, for instance, is only being addressed from a prevention perspective. However, many young girls have already engaged in sex, and some are already infected with STIs or HIV. When discussing this topic, only preventive measures are being talked about, with no emphasis on treatment or testing.
If sex education is passed on to everyone, both men and women, it can empower them equally. Providing the same knowledge to everyone will allow both men and women to negotiate safe sex, improving the health of both genders. Therefore, the current emphasis on prevention alone is not enough, and sex education should be given more attention.
I am curious about how the stigmatization and shame surrounding sexual education and STIs, as you just discussed, affect the number of people who are willing to seek help for the issues they are experiencing.
Sexuality is still considered a taboo topic in Uganda, and many people feel ashamed to express their HIV status or seek medical treatment for reproductive organ infections. The Ask Without Shame mobile platform provides a way for people to seek medical advice anonymously, promoting confidentiality and building trust. However, many still fear going to medical facilities for assistance due to the stigma associated with having an STI. Some worry about being judged for committing adultery or causing their partner to contract the infection. There is still significant stigma surrounding seeking medical support for STIs, including HIV and gonorrhea, in Uganda.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Your initiative is to protect and promote sexual education in Uganda. As a woman, how difficult is it for you to accomplish this? What does Ugandan society expect from a young woman like yourself?
This is an interesting question. I had a very bad experience that I would like to share with you. When I started Ask Without Shame, I moved around and shared my dream with people. However, sexual education is a taboo topic in Uganda, and it's not easy to talk about it openly. When I told people about my plans, some thought I was spoiled or promiscuous and that they could use me for their own sexual desires. Others thought I wanted to ruin their children by spoiling them. Despite this, I didn't lose hope. I always explained that Ask Without Shame was here to help, not to encourage promiscuity. We provide information to help people protect themselves.
After explaining this, some people started using the platform. It wasn't easy, especially for a woman like me in this industry. My fellow team members were even called "Doctor, can you find me in room 98?" because people assumed anyone who talked about sexuality just wanted to have sex. But despite the challenges, the majority of the population is now using Ask Without Shame to learn about sexual health.
In Uganda, there used to be a program called "Sanga and Uncle" where young girls would spend their holidays with their aunts, who would educate them about reproductive health. However, that program no longer exists. Adolescents now learn from the internet and their friends, which can lead to dangerous misinformation. That's why it's important to provide accurate information through platforms like Ask Without Shame. After explaining my intentions, people saw me as innovative and not as someone who wanted to ruin their children.
How has your app and mission to destigmatize discussing sex been received by older generations with more traditional views on sex?
The app is widely embraced by almost everyone. However, there is a significant gap in schools where sexual education is not covered due to the focus on academics. While some parents emphasize sex education through other means, organizations like ours can bridge that gap. Even a teenager in Uganda with a regular phone, not necessarily a smartphone, can call a doctor and seek the information they need and still get it. These days, teenagers and young people are living in a digital era. They have access to information that even their parents may not know, due to the power of their phones. As a result, we receive inquiries from adolescents who do not have smartphones to download the app. Interestingly, most of our app users are not from Uganda but rather from India, with a few from the US and some parts of Europe. In Uganda, most users prefer WhatsApp, SMS, and calls.
Although you previously mentioned negative reactions to your program within the community, who were the supporters when you first launched it?
Initially, my support was limited, mostly coming from my fellow radiographers who pushed and encouraged me. Fortunately, at that time, I was attending the Social Innovation Academy, an outstanding program that helps individuals develop their ideas. They provided me with financial support and mentorship, and helped me improve my initial prototype. Additionally, they provided emotional support, which was incredibly valuable since it wasn't easy to promote my idea, especially in local communities where sex is a taboo topic. The Social Innovation Academy provided a wall for me to lean on during these difficult times. Through live calls, they empowered and energized me. As more people understood my work, especially in the small community where I lived, I received more support. However, the initial support I received came from the Social Innovation Academy and the paramedical school where I was. There, I established a movement, which made it easier for me to spread my message to other parts of the community.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
It appears that you have received support both domestically and internationally. However, in some other African countries, your efforts to promote gender equality and sexual education are viewed as the promotion of foreign ideas originating from the Western world, particularly from countries such as Europe and the United States, which previously oppressed Ugandans during colonial times. Do you believe that you are perceived as an agent introducing foreign ideas in Uganda?
No, that's not true. Ugandans currently have a very different mindset. We no longer view things through the lens of colonialism. For example, sex education and reproductive health have nothing to do with the USA or Europe. We are simply trying to adapt our traditional practices to fit into the modern world. I have never experienced anyone accusing me, for instance, of being an agent of colonialism because we also value our traditional norms. We understand the conservatism of Africa, and many important programs have opened people's eyes to opportunities for innovation and technological development beyond the legacy of colonialism. It has nothing to do with colonialism.
How did you come up with the structure of the app and the idea of it being more of a question-answer format? Are there any additional resources or frequently asked questions available within the app?
Yes, the problem we face in Africa is conservatism. There are certain topics, such as sexuality, that are not openly discussed in public because it is believed they should not be talked about. So, I wondered, what would be the best way for people to share their problems anonymously without fear of judgment? I thought about creating a phone program that could change people's voices, like turning a man's voice into a woman's voice. I assembled a team, and one of my team members, a developer from Kenya, explained to me on a moving bus in East Africa that an app is something you can use to dial the phone. Together with my team, we built the app, and I did the design without knowing how to code. We added features as we went along, and eventually, the app was ready to launch.
I remember you mentioned that Uganda focuses primarily on preventive measures, but I'm curious if they offer any sexual education programs in schools. Additionally, what have you found to be the most effective way to provide this necessary education to both men and women in Uganda?
Emphasizing prevention alone is not enough. We also need to provide guidance and testing. Many young people become infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases due to their sexual activities. Unfortunately, they often avoid treatment until their infection worsens. At Ask Without Shame, we not only teach preventive measures, but also visit schools to conduct testing and provide one-on-one coaching with medical experts. We offer counseling and follow-up services to ensure that our clients receive the care and attention they need. If someone is infected with HIV, we connect them with organizations such as Tasso which specialize in treating infected individuals. Our goal is to provide comprehensive care that goes beyond teaching preventive measures and providing information. We offer testing and connect individuals with reproductive health doctors who can provide free medication for other infections.
Earlier, you mentioned that youth are disproportionately affected by HIV. Research also shows that women and youth are particularly affected by the disease. Is there a relationship between the lack of conversation about sexual health and women's rights, especially regarding sexual and gender-based violence, and patriarchal norms such as child marriages?
Certainly. There is a strong correlation between a lack of knowledge and discomfort in discussing sexual health, particularly among women. It is common for women to avoid discussing this topic, even with peers. This trend is reflected in our platform, as there are more male users than female users. The root cause of this disparity is a knowledge gap, as women are often not well-informed about reproductive health. Additionally, patriarchal norms further contribute to this inequality, particularly among young women and adolescents.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Imagine waking up tomorrow to find that you are the new President of Uganda. What would be the first thing you would do with your newfound power?
Firstly, I would change the composition of the parliament by ensuring that 75% of its representatives are women. Currently, only 34.9% of the parliament is composed of women, which is inadequate. By empowering women, I would enable them to take on leadership roles and make important decisions for their country.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Do you believe that women in Uganda are politically active? Are they interested in running for parliament to effect change and improve their situation, ultimately achieving gender equality?
To a certain extent, some women in Uganda are passionate about politics. However, most campaigns primarily feature male participants due to the country's political structure and stability. Currently, Uganda's politics are characterized by a lot of violence. For instance, individuals in opposition face a great deal of violence. Many women are timid and lack the assertiveness to pursue their political ambitions. Therefore, the political nature and setting in Uganda are the primary factors that prevent many women from participating in politics. If women were not subjected to brutal treatment by the current people in power, more would be interested in participating in politics.