The Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression 2020 has been awarded to prominent Ugandan academic, writer and feminist activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi.
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. In 2017, she launched the #Pads4girlsUg Project, a campaign to raise money to buy and distribute sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda.
She is also known as a fierce, public critic of Uganda’s president and a practitioner of “radical rudeness”, a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult. Dr. Nyanzi is currently serving an 18-month sentence for ‘cyber harassment’, in relation to a poem she wrote on Facebook in September 2018 criticising President Museveni (and his mother).
‘Stella Nyanzi has been deemed a criminal by the Ugandan authorities because she has criticised those at the highest echelons of power; though 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 unshakeably 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.
– Jennifer Clement, PEN International president.
In a 2017 interview, Dr. Nyanzi told PEN International:
‘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.’
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 16 January, will be introduced by the Executive Director of Oxfam Novib Michiel Servaes, who said:
‘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.’
Syrian writer and journalist Samar Yazbek who was awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN Free Expression Award in 2013 for her defence of human rights and women rights, will be delivering the Free the Word! keynote speech:
‘We counter terrorism through freedom of expression, educating children and providing them with opportunities to become an enlightened generation of equal citizens and not soldiers or suicidal extremists. We fight terrorism by eradicating dictatorship and the terrorism of a state that justifies its existence and fascism by the presence of extremism. Extremism is the result of ignorance and repression; ignorance breeds violence against people, as stated by the philosopher Ibn Rushd.’
Danson Kahyana, President of PEN Uganda, who will be accepting the award on Dr. Nyanzi’s behalf, said:
‘Dr Stella Nyanzi’s winning of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression Award is good news not only to her, but 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.’
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.