Ugandan activist and writer Stella Nyanzi has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.
The accolade is given to writers who "continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution," according to OkayAfrica.
Stella Nyanzi wins Oxfam Novib PEN Award for Freedom of Expression.— Oxfam Novib (@oxfamnovib) January 16, 2020
With Radical Rudeness she forces public debate about patriarchy, women’s rights, and power abuse. @PEN_int #freeexpression #ImprisonedWriter pic.twitter.com/6yFJEdAkwB
Nyanzi is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence for “cyber harassment” after publishing a poem using President Yoweri Museveni’s mother’s vagina as a metaphor for his regime, reports The East African. In the poem, which she published to her Facebook page, she wrote that she wished "the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's (the president's mother) vaginal canal had burnt up your unborn fetus. Burnt you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda."
The ceremony was introduced by Michiel Servaes, executive director of Oxfam Novib, who praised Nyanzi for sparking public debate in Uganda about taboo issues such as women’s rights.
“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,” Servaes said. “[Nyanzi] does not take power for granted. She has shocked many with her 'radical rudeness,' but, more importantly, she has fueled public debate in her country about issues otherwise not spoken about.
Carles Torner, the director of PEN International, said Nyanzi earned the award because she is not afraid to be vocal about the country’s issues.
"For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her," Torner said at the award ceremony.
An empty chair was used to represent the feminist’s absence. She was able to smuggle out an acceptance speech from prison, reports The Guardian.
An empty chair symbolising that @StellaNyanzi cannot be with us tonight to accept the @oxfamnovib / @pen_int Free Expression Award 2020. She is in prison in Uganda for the simple act of writing a poem. #FreeStellaNyanzi #FreedomOfExpression @writersunlimitd pic.twitter.com/Stz1mNjZ09— Michiel Servaes (@michielservaes) January 16, 2020
"Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship," wrote Nyanzi. "My custodial sentence in a maximum security prison highlights how fearful this dictator and his cronies are of writers. Isn't the pen, indeed, mightier than the sword?"
Stella Nyanzi proudly accepts the Oxfam Novib PEN award, writing from Ward Two at Luzira Women Prison in Uganda. ‘I am seated on this prison floor, pen in hand, and I am exercising my freedom to write against all odds. Viva, viva the freedom to write!’ @PEN_int #ImprisonedWriter pic.twitter.com/qBZG42WGRf— Oxfam Novib (@oxfamnovib) January 16, 2020
Danson Kahyana, president of PEN Uganda, accepted the award on Nyanzi’s behalf.
PEN International President Jennifer Clement does not agree with Nyanzi’s imprisonment and believes Museveni should accept criticism from the public.
“Though her words might be colourful and shocking to some, this is not enough to justify the imposition of penalties," Clement said. "Public officials should tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens."
The former research fellow at Makerere University's Institute of Social Research spent 33 days in prison back in 2017 after describing Museveni as a “pair of buttocks.”
She is due in court on Friday for another hearing to appeal the court's decision last August to add nine more months to her sentence.
She was convicted under the Computer Misuse Act 2011, which Amnesty International wants to do away with because it “has been used systematically to harass, intimidate and stifle government critics like Stella Nyanzi.”