The inspiring young men working to end sexual harassment in Uganda

In Kampala, the bustling capital of Uganda, 80% of girls say they don’t feel safe living in the city.

This shocking statistic is further cemented by research conducted by Plan International which shows that many girls and women are harassed at all hours of the day and night. Groping, cat-calling and abuse are perceived as ‘normal’.

Plan International’s Safer Cities program is engaging men and boys in Kampala to help shift harmful attitudes towards gender and build safe, accountable and inclusive urban spaces for young people, especially girls.

Through workshops, community dialogues and awareness-raising campaigns, men and boys are learning to stand up for girls’ safety, not hinder it.

Meet 3 young men who used to think harassment was ‘normal’ and see how the Safer Cities program is encouraging them and many others to Defy Normal and champion gender equality.

Eric

Eric, 24, lives with his wife and 9-year-old son in a congested community with lots of gangs and a high crime rate. It’s an unsafe place for everyone, and many girls and women rely on motorcycle taxis (boda bodas) to get them around safely.

Boda boda drivers are typically men, and as a driver himself, Eric knows all too well the attitude that many drivers carry towards girls and women in his community.

“I used to sexually harass girls a lot – cat call, touch them inappropriately and demean them,” says Eric. “It was the culture in the boda boda industry.”

Things changed for Eric after he met a Plan International staff member and was invited to attend a Safer Cities workshop with other boda boda drivers and members from his community.

“First I had no interest, but soon I realized the things they were talking about were useful – not only for girls but for us men as well,” he says.

“What we used to think about girls, it was not the right thing. I saw women as worthless, as sex objects, we weren’t aware it was wrong. We had our rules, but these rules weren’t focused so much on the safety of girls and women. They only benefitted us, the boda boda riders.”

Through the program, Eric says that him and other men are learning to be more empathetic and to look at situations from the perspectives of their wives, daughters and sisters.

“We reviewed our rules and regulations and changed our routes – we used to drive along routes which were convenient for us as drivers, but they weren’t the safest areas to be taking girls,” he says. “Now the other boda boda drivers would feel uncomfortable harassing girls in front of me. I’ve become a role model.”Eric’s shift in perspective is not just having an impact on his career, but also on his family.

“I am a different father now,” he says, proudly.  “I promote gender equality. The toys we give our child, the way I communicate with my wife – it’s very different now. I respect her opinions more, I appreciate her and make effort to tell her that I do.”

“When my son grows up to be my age, I want Kampala to be a safe, inclusive city for girls. I want him to contribute actively to the safety of girls and women – not just sit back. It is everyone’s responsibility.”

Muzafar

Muzafar, 21, first learned about the Safer Cities program in 2016 and says the community dialogues and workshops have helped him understand his own gender biases and where sexual harassment often begins.

“Sexual harassment starts in the home,” says Muzafar. “Girls learn to respect men and boys, like they’re superior, like they’re overlords.”

“At school, we were taught that women will grow up to be wives and men will be doctors. Boys grow up and think they have the right to touch girls’ breasts or buttocks – that girls only exist to have children. It means girls think this behaviour is normal unless they’ve been empowered to know their rights.”

“When I was 12 or 13, I used to make comments to girls on the street and put my arms around them when I’d sit behind them on the boda boda. But since joining Safer Cities, now I know we’re showing disrespect for our mothers if we disrespect girls.”

Today, Muzafar works hard to champion gender equality in his community by teaching his friends to respect girls and women through weekly meetings and football games where both boys and girls play together.

Umar

“My little sister inspired me to join Safer Cities. I want all girls – including her – to be seen as equals,” says Umar, 18.

“While I’ve never harassed anyone in my life, there was still room for improvement in the way I used to view the opposite sex. Some guys see girls just like sex objects and I used to look at them as if they were good for nothing. But I now I see girls differently. I’ve changed. I want to fight for their freedom in the community.”

Umar is determined to teach others what he has learnt, and he hopes to inspire boys and men to respect girls and women. In addition, he hopes to support girls and women in standing up for their right to be free from harassment.

“Girls, if they are given chances, can go on to great things. Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament is Rebecca Kadaga – a very well-respected women,” he says. “Gender equality is good for everyone.”

4 men smiling

Sexual harassment happens everywhere, and it won’t go away unless we all work together to overcome harmful gender perceptions and unequal power relations.

Through programs like Safer Cities, Plan International is working to advance children’s rights and equality for girls. Learn more about our work here.