Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a law requiring the government to provide free sanitary towels to schoolgirls in public schools.
In another time and place it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it was. It is supposed to be one of those things that a sensible government just does, given that Unesco estimates that one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school when they are menstruating, because they have no access to or can’t afford sanitary towels.
In Uganda, recently there was a story that made international headlines for days over this same matter. A Makerere University academic and acid-tongued social media activist Stella Nyanzi was outraged that President Yoweri Museveni – and his wife, who is the Education minister - had reneged on an election campaign promise to provide free sanitary towels to schoolgirls ala Uhuru.
In a Facebook salvo, she called the president a “pair of buttocks” and made her way into the history books and prison for her audacity.
More broadly, though, there is a serious political battle here – over what women can cover their bodies with, the bits they can or can’t show, what goes into their bodies (contraceptives), what gets on their bodies (lipstick, braids), what comes out of their bodies (babies, the “full stop”). There are more frontlines over women’s bodies than anything else.
This week the Ugandan government issued a dress code for civil servants. It provides that female employees cannot show any cleavage (there you go), wear brightly coloured braids or hair extensions, sleeveless blouses or see-through clothing. No body-hugging stuff, no miniskirts.
The rules purported to be gender neutral, so they had something for the men, too. They must wear long-sleeved shirts, jackets and ties, and loose trousers.
As long as I have known male civil servants, they have worn long-sleeved shirts, jackets, ties, and loose trousers (partly because the shape of most doesn’t allow for tight trousers).
The men who wear tight trousers don’t work for government. They are most likely musicians who work out, like Sauti Sol.
So the rule imposes no new restrictions on Ugandan male civil servants.
A more socially harmful version of this war played out in Tanzania recently, when President John Magufuli reaffirmed an old rule that barred schoolgirls who got pregnant from ever returning to continue their education after they have their children. That made underage motherhood, a big social problem, no doubt, a crime punished by a life sentence of ignorance!
You would think the better policy would be one that FORCES teenage mothers to go back to school, so that they can provide for their children by getting an education and a well-paying job.
Needless to say, the boys who make the girls pregnant are free to go on and graduate from school because the things that come out of men’s bodies are considered less problematic.
Tanzanian member of parliament Halima Mdee was totally p***ed off with Magufuli and lambasted him. The last we heard, a call had been put out for her arrest.
This urge to set ourselves up as administrators over women’s bodies has been debated for a long time, and beyond the power dynamics around it, there is little new one can say.
However, I have been watching the History and Discovery channels a lot again in recent weeks. What is striking is how many men in those days were killed in wars, political feuds, or in massacres by vengeful rulers.
The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses chopped off the hands and genitals of thousands of enemy soldiers. To be a man was to die young in a brutal death.
But to be a man these days, means the most dangerous thing some of them do is play video games.
The only prospect of defeat many African leaders face is when their favourite European football club loses a game that they are watching on TV (did you know that even Uncle Bob in Zimbabwe is a huge Arsenal fan?).
The world today, for all its ills, is a remarkably peaceful place. Men have run out of wars. More men die in traffic accidents than in valiant battle.
We looked around, and saw some breasts peeping over bras, red braids, purple lipstick, and tight skirts hugging ample African backsides, and decided “that is the next frontline”.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of ‘Africapedia.com’ and ‘Roguechiefs.com’.