By Timothy Murungi
Popular Ugandan music star Sheebah Karungi on May 9 made a cry for help.
In a sombre video, she narrated an ordeal of how she was sexually assaulted moments before her scheduled performance.
The distressed celebrity singer, however, did not mention the perpetrator’s name, but said the man was “one of those people you respect and call real role models, that pretend on TV to look good and do good”.
After the video went viral on social media platforms, there was a debate on why the celebrity singer, who has power and status owing to her massive success in the music industry, did not mention names.
The Police on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 said in a press release that Sheebah recorded a statement in which she named the violator. However, Police did not divulge the name of the suspect, raising further questions about the concealed sex offender.
“We must start to believe women”
Elizabeth Kemigisha, the advocacy manager of Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA), says as a victim, Sheebah is under no obligation to name the perpetrator.
“Sheebah does not owe anyone the name of her perpetrator. Other victims out there don’t either. Victims should never be burdened with that kind of responsibility. Women always speak out and have even reported, but haven’t always been helped,” she says.
Kemigisha said it is high time the society started believing women who speak out against sexual assault.
“We must start to believe women. When victims speak out, there is an immediate chorus of victim blaming, her history is interrogated, the work she does, and at the end of this, the victim is responsible for the abuse she has suffered.
“This is the reality of many women and here is an explanation for this, the credibility of women, especially those that report violence inflicted on them by men is a deliberate move to further oppress and silence women,” she says.
The lawyer stresses that attacking sexual abuse victims always creates a chilling effect on reporting crime.
“Many women, especially those experiencing violence, have to question themselves before they even tell a relative, friend or even report to the Police. If we are speaking honestly, every one of us knows of at least one woman whose impulse to speak has been affected by the fear of doubting her credibility,” Kemigisha says.
Rita Aciro, the executive director of Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), explains: “By the time someone comes up to say I was sexually harassed, that is already a big step. You see she has already faced a backlash already. I stand with Sheebah, I stand with any woman, any girl who comes out to break the silence. That is a sign of strength, a sign of empowerment. So many people are dying quietly because of exactly what Sheebah is facing now.”
Many have castigated Sheebah on social media for not naming the culprit. They argued that she had no reason to fear because she is famous and a powerful female superstar.
Aciro says the backlash the singer got is a self-fulfilling prophecy of how dangerous it was for any sex abuse victim to speak out.
“Imagine Sheebah, at her level with her celebrity status and all that. If she can face such backlash, which commoner is going to come out and say she was abused. Who will believe her? And who will even care?” she wonders.
Sex abuse victims are not to blame for being harrassed
Sadly, Kemigisha says the oppression and victimisation of women is entrenched in the society. Many females online also blamed Sheebah pointing out her raunchy sense of fashion and style.
“Many people subscribe to this idea that sexual violence victims have some responsibility for their own assaults. The idea that clothing has anything to do with assault is global and persistent- It is not new that many people, therefore, blame victims’ dress code, their dancing or even flirting to being the cause of their assault.
This is a dangerous status quo. It is simply another way through which men and society in general seek to control women’s autonomy. The failure to recognize women as autonomous individuals who are able to control their bodies and actions is the cause of this assault, not the clothes women wear,” Kemigisha says.
According to the Police crime report of 2020, sex related crimes were 16,144 compared to 15,638 in 2019. Sex crimes include rape, defilement and indecent assault but Police says sexual crimes are under reported because victims fear the repercussions.
“The other day you (New Vision) reported that 14 million Ugandans are mentally ill. Do you know what causes mental illness? Part of that could be sexual violence. People are dying quietly. People are not getting access to justice. People are not getting psychosocial support,” Aciro said.
The women defenders said the right response should be supporting the women by believing them.
“The best way is to believe the victim or survivor, provide support and empathy. Offer them time and space to heal,” Aciro says.
Maybe she will reveal the name
Even amidst angry calls for Sheebah to put a name to her sexual violence claim, Aciro counselled that doing so was a complex process.
“Speaking out is a process. That’s why some people unless somebody is caught red-handed some people will take years to break the silence,” she says.
Florence Munyirwa, the head of public affairs at Uganda Human Rights Commission, applauded Sheebah for speaking out.
“Some women who have been sexually harassed fear to speak. The women are being hailed now for talking about it. It is a good step in the right direction. You can’t blame her (for not declaring the offender publicly) because she has spoken out. Maybe with time she will mention the person. We just have to give her time because these are the things women deal with all the time. They have been violated like that, but they fear to come out,” she said.
Eunice Musiime, the executive director of Akina Mama wa Afrika, hailed Sheebah and said she started a very important conversation.
“Cases like these serve the purpose of awareness. At the beginning of the conversation, people were talking about Sheeba’s dressing.
Other people from her own industry said they believed her. Sometimes what a woman needs to hear is I believe you. Then people begin to understand that sexual assault has nothing to do with the way you are dressing. It is helping people appreciate the dynamics. It has opened up a conversation on areas which people would not talk about,” she said.
Musiime says the justice system needs to do more about prosecuting sexual violence cases. “We need the Justice Law and Order Sector to come out strongly on what changes they will make so that the citizens can have trust in the system,” she said.
Victims first deal with trauma
She argued that a rigged system could have stopped Sheebah to open up fully right from the time of the assault.
“Sheebah must have thought about that and said What’s the purpose of me going to a system that is going to protect the powerful. She knows that whether she names the perpetrator or not, the system is rigged against her,” she said.
Musiime cited the example of former senior state attorney Samantha Mwesigye, who accused Deputy Solicitor General Christopher Gashirabike of sexual harassment, but the case has never been heard since 2019.
Musiime likens Sheebah’s novelty at putting out a cry for help to the Me Too movement that was triggered by one woman’s tweet accusing now disgraced and incarcerated Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her.
“Pointing out the culprit is not her role. That’s for the Police. Maybe she isn’t the only one who the perpetrator has violated. Human beings deal with the situation differently.
Maybe someone else will speak out. Harvey Weinstein had violated women many times but it wasn’t until one woman spoke out.
Then other women said ‘me too’. It has happened to me too,” she said. The movement that started in 2016 focuses on the experiences of sexual violence survivors, highlighting how commonplace the vice is.
Musiime expressed disappointment at those who ‘think sexual violence is like a slap where one can easily say the person who slapped them’.
“In cases of sexual abuse, victims have to first deal with the trauma which resulted from the act,” she says.