Incarcerated Ugandan academic, writer and feminist activist, Dr Stella Nyanzi is this year’s winner of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.
A medical anthropologist by training, Dr Nyanzi has published widely in the academia on topics at the intersections of culture, health, law, gender and sexualities.
“She is an ardent writer on social media where she comments and debates about contemporary social-political occurrences, and she writes poetry, mainly on social media. She is an outspoken activist on women’s rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex peoples,” PEN International president, Ms Jennifer Clement said in a statement posted on The Hague-based organization’s website.
Ms Clement described Dr Nyanzi as a fierce, public critic of President Museveni and a practitioner of “radical rudeness.”
“Stella Nyanzi has been deemed a criminal by the Ugandan authorities because she has criticised those at the highest echelons of power. Although her words might be colourful and shocking to some, this is not enough to justify the imposition of penalties, and public officials should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. At PEN we believe unshakably in the need for writers to be able to criticise, parody, and mock at the highest levels. This award recognises the work she has done for women, civil society, and in the defence of free expression. We will continue to amplify her voice until she is released,” she said.
Dr Nyanzi is currently in Luzira Prison serving an 18-month sentence for ‘cyber harassment’, in relation to a poem she wrote on Facebook in September 2018 criticising Mr Museveni.
“For those of us whose articulations criticise the government and its actors, those of us who question the status quo, those of us who expose the numerous everyday violations of citizens’ rights, those of us who resist and defy the system, their spaces for freedom of expression are shutting down fast. Gags, censors, intimidation, fines, threats, arrests, beatings, detention, raids, confiscation of materials, bans of our works, are increasing vices that the government metes out against us,” Dr Nyanzi is quoted to have told PEN International in 2017.
Each year the award is given to writers and journalists around the world in recognition of their significant contribution to freedom of expression despite the danger to their own lives.
The award ceremony, held as part of the opening night of the Writers Unlimited festival at The Hague on Thursday, was introduced by the executive director of Oxfam Novib Michiel Servaes.
“Around the world, brave activists are claiming the right to express themselves. They speak out to influence decisions that shape the lives and the future of citizens, whose rights are being ignored by too many governments. Today, I am humbled to honour Stella Nyanzi from Uganda. She does not take power for granted. She has shocked many with her “radical rudeness,” but, more importantly, she has fuelled public debate in her country about issues otherwise not spoken about. Patriarchy, women’s rights, and power abuse,” Servaes is quoted as saying.
Danson Kahyana, president of PEN Uganda, who accepted the award on Dr Nyanzi’s behalf, said the award was good news, to not only the Makerere University research fellow but also to all freedom of expression defenders in Uganda and elsewhere.
“For it shows that demonising and harassing a courageous writer does not signal their vocal death. To the contrary, their voice remains fully alive, capable of reverberating far and wide, through platforms that awards like this provides,” he said.
Previous winners of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression include Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, Eritrean poet and writer Amanuel Asrat, Honduran activist Dina Meza and Cameroonian journalist Enoh Meyomesse.