They think they own their bodies – Fellows’ seminar by Victoria Namuggala

7 November 2022
Social and gender norms informing voicing and reporting about sexual harassment among domestic workers in Kampala’s informal economy

“Most come from rural areas – often single mothers – with very few choices. They are poorly paid – earning $15 – 30 per month with the money sometimes paid directly to the family, overworked – often working 14-hour days, isolated and confined – not allowed to interact with the neighbours, leave the property or have their own cellphones, some families don’t even let them eat the same food as them. They are boxed in and disadvantaged due to their gender, class, lack of education, language and cultural issues and the fact that domestic work is not regarded as formal work so they have no written contracts and no regulatory protection. They have to do what the boss says,” said Victoria Namuggala of the School of Women and Gender Studies, Makerere University. Namuggala is a STIAS Iso Lomso fellow in her first period of residency. She was reporting on her study describing the dire situation of domestic workers in the slum areas of Kampala, Uganda published by the Institute of Development Studies as The Gendered Price of Precarity. (

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Victoria Namuggala

“These – mostly very young women – move to Kampala to find work and often end up hustling to survive.”

With over 75% of the population below 30, young people’s unemployment is a major challenge for Uganda. Up to 90% of young people work in the informal economy and 18% of the total urban population lives in informal settlements.

“Legislation and protection does not extend to informal workers – including casual farm workers, people working in markets and domestic and sex workers. It’s unregulated and precarious. Many of these young people lack the skills and financial inputs to create jobs for themselves. All of this was made worse by COVID-19 – when self-employed turned out to be unemployed.”

Of these, one of the most precarious groups are domestic workers whose lives are particularly influenced by social/cultural and gender norms, and the risk of sexual harassment.

There were an estimated six million domestic workers in Uganda in 2007 which has probably increased dramatically since then.  A large percentage are minors, but as permits are not required for domestic workers they are not legally registered so the actual numbers are unknown. And as domestic work is not regarded as work they are also not protected by the Employment (Sexual Harassment) Regulations of 2012.

Namuggala explained that workplace sexual harassment generally is a problem. Describing it as “a hidden fire” she said that one in five Ugandan women have experienced sexual harassment but it’s not talked about or reported freely but often rather understood as “part of organisational culture, an occupational hazard, something people expect to happen”. “It is grounded in a gender system in which women can be complicit in their own disadvantage,” she said. “It’s hard to dismantle.”

People are also socialised not to talk about private things like sex. “As you grow up you know what you can and can’t say – there are “unspeakable” words, you show you are well raised by maintaining secrecy about private things. As we say you mustn’t ‘cause ears to burst’.”

Risky spaces, no privacy, nowhere to go

The study specifically looked at understanding experiences of sexual harassment among domestic workers aged 18 to 24 years in the Kawempe division of Kampala district. It examines the intersecting risk factors that create exposure to sexual harassment, the role of social and gender norms in reporting it and challenges relating to voicing.

All those interviewed had experienced some form of sexual harassment from verbal utterances, signs, gestures and inappropriate looks to touching, body rubbing and attempted rape. Because of the difficulty in speaking about private issues this qualitative study used visual methods including body maps and safety audits.

“Most can’t even say what happened to them – so they did this via shading. They couldn’t say the words to researchers who had to be respected. There is discrepancy between formally acceptable language and that of young people. The words are literally unspeakable or have different contextual meanings – for example – ‘to touch’ means rape, while ‘to chew’ also means rape but not by a stranger.”

And trying to report this to authorities including local councillors, religious leaders or the police is usually not successful. “Mostly survivors are encouraged to keep quiet. Religious leaders may tell them to forgive because God avenges sin. Sometimes elders also pretend not to understand so they don’t have to act. The system decides how to interpret what they say. If they report rape to a female boss they would have to lose the job as bosses have to protect their marriages,” explained Namuggala.

“Going back to the village is seen as bad so if they lose their jobs they may find work in the markets, or at mobile money kiosks, get married or end up in sex work to manage and survive. There is a saying ‘Only go back when dead’.”

And even among their peers help is not available. “The perception among the youth is that you have to adapt to the ‘Kampala lifestyle’. You can’t defend yourself and reporting it is a backward act. You may also be seen as ‘too proud’ – why should this not happen to you.”

Talking to the employers, of course, produces a different story. “Female employers talked about these women trying to break up their marriages when they are just trying to do them a favour.”

And although similar experiences are found in other categories of work, Namuggala believes the conditions of domestic work are very specific. “It’s more marginalised. And if you break the rules, you lose your job.”

“The isolated working conditions increase the risk and limit avenues for reporting. Social and gender norms undermine the ability to formally report,” she continued. “The culture of silence and notions of victim blaming, stigmatisation and lack of a language to raise matters of sexual harassment all hinder women’s voice towards self-care and justice.”

The study recommendations include legal recognition of domestic work as work; the use of information technology to reach domestic spaces that are physically hard to access; legal frameworks that take cognisance of the language issues, social norms and difficulties in reporting; as well as advocacy to enhance the rights of domestic workers, increase sensitisation and encourage network building.

“We need to create a culture that allows openly speaking about sensitive topics,” said Namuggala. “We also need to formalise domestic work so that it can be regulated and the workers protected.”

Whilst at STIAS Namuggala will expand on this work to look in detail at identity and belonging of teenage parents in Kampala’s informal settlements. She explained that teenage parents are a major component of the domestic workforce. Comprehensive sexual education is not allowed in schools mainly because parents don’t want it, and abortion is illegal unless for medical reasons so this is a growing, understudied area that “raises pertinent public-health concerns as well as identity complexities”.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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