When Rights Come Home: The Intimate Politics of Women’s Rights in Urban Uganda


The relationship between human rights and African states is a complex one. For many states, the dictates of neoliberal economic reforms have provided a rationale for a retreat from any commitment to a broad conception of human rights encompassing economic and social justice. As James Ferguson has argued, neoliberal policies have typically “hollowed out” African states and legitimized an outsourcing of government responsibilities to nongovernmental organizations and the private sector.1 Many African states have therefore combined a limited commitment to individual civil and political rights with a narrow economic development agenda focused on capital investment. In this sense, such states embody what David Harvey has described as a neoliberal nexus of individual freedoms and market-focused economic policies.2

For many African states, there is yet another layer of complication in their engagement with human rights issues. As Aili Mari Tripp has argued, many African states today are best described as semi-authoritarian, combining “elements of democratization with illiberal rule.”3 Such hybrid regimes engage with global rights discourse in multifaceted, and at times paradoxical, ways. For Tripp, Uganda is a prime example of the semi-authoritarian African state. Under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan state has moved from a pro-rights regime (especially with regard to women’s rights in the late 1980s and 1990s) to one that is increasingly inconsistent on individual civil rights and freedoms (especially rights to political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and most recently freedom of sexual expression). As Tripp argues, Museveni has astutely used a commitment to neoliberal economic reforms as a way to assuage Western donors’ concerns about rights abuses.4 Relatively robust economic growth in Uganda in the last decade has provided convenient cover for a regime that has become bolder in asserting its continuing claim to power—a claim often made at the expense of rights.

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