06/12/2012 05:15 EDT | Updated 08/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Ugandans Are Sticking it To the Man For Women's Rights

People were shocked by the photographs that show Ugandan police brutally grabbing Ingrid Turinawe's breasts as she cried out in pain. Sexual assault is a public taboo in this deeply conservative country. However, the very public and sexualized nature of the attack on Turinawe seems to have been a defining moment for the women's movement of Uganda.

This past spring, Ugandan women did something unprecedented: in response to a brutal assault on opposition leader Ingrid Turinawe they took to the streets. People were shocked by the photographs that show police brutally grabbing Turinawe's breasts as she cried out in pain. Sexual assault is a public taboo in this deeply conservative country. However, the very public and sexualized nature of the attack on Turinawe seems to have been a defining moment.

In the days following the assault, women descended upon the police stations, baring their bras in protest. In a society, where nearly 100 per cent of the population identifies as religious, this was a shocking and radical gesture. It also sparked a debate about sexual assault and while the conversation wasn't always sympathetic to Turinawe, it is a conversation that was long overdue. The Minister of State for Internal Affairs, James Baba, assured Ugandans that "the fact that this lady broke the law in no way excuses or explains any assault."

That was good to hear. Sexual assault of women, particularly during times of violence or protests, is nothing new. Journalists Mona Eltahawy and Lara Logan are well-known testaments to this disturbing reality. For the women to turn the attention back onto the police is incredibly brave; the movement they belong to (Activists for Change) has been banned, so the protestors took a significant risk. The protestors have even employed humour to get their message across; the BBC reported that women were holding signs that said: "How would you feel if we squeezed your balls?"

Globally, sexual violence and rape are very under-reported crimes. This is especially true in Northern Uganda as it struggles to overcome decades of violence. Amnesty International reported that most victims of sexual violence in Northern Uganda don't report the crimes because they lack faith in the justice system. The culture of impunity has meant that so "many women and girls in Northern Uganda suffer sexual and gender-based violence committed by state actors... and non-state actors."

Needless to say, there has been the predictable backlash from some quarters in response to the outrage over Turinawe's sexual assault. There are comments on the websites of local papers (New Vision, The Daily Monitor) suggesting that because the women protested the sexual assault by baring their bras that they "deserved it." Whatever "it" was.

But the fact that a national debate over this assault is taking place is encouraging. Uganda is a young country overcoming huge obstacles and real progress is being made. More women are graduating from university and entering the workforce. Uganda recently elected its first female Speaker of the House, Rebecca Kadaga, whom some pundits predict will run for president after President Museveni steps down. Almost a third of MPs in the Ugandan Parliament are women. Canada has only 25 per cent.

Despite the increasing economic empowerment of women, employment opportunities are often sharply delineated along lines of class, gender and education. There are few, if any, female boda or matatu drivers. Men work as butchers and women sell fruits and vegetables. Men work in construction and women work as street cleaners. In rural areas, these delineations are even more pronounced.

And Uganda still has a long way to go: marital rape is legal; women who want to divorce unfaithful husbands are held to stricter evidentiary standards; and domestic violence was only criminalized in 2010. But women are leading the way to a more egalitarian future.

Take Elizabeth Saniam and Evelyn Abonyo. The two women recently completed training to qualify as mechanics. Both had been unable to complete school due to high school fees, but the women were selected to join a program run by European Union and Plan International. Women in Uganda, like women in every country across the globe, face issues of discrimination and violence. Turinawe, Saniam and Abonyo, are trailblazers. Every country needs them. Rather than being threatened, Uganda should embrace its strong women leaders.