Sanitary napkins, Bribery and Refugee Status Determination

By Molly Joeck

What do these three things have in common? They can all be found at the important-sounding and all-powerful Office of the Prime Minister, or OPM, in Kampala, an office that I am frequently obliged to visit in the context of my work at the Durable Solutions Unit at Refugee Law Project. The OPM is, essentially, the equivalent of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, granting new arrivals asylum seeker status, and then assessing them through a series of interviews as to their eligibility for refugee status, and, if they are lucky, eventually granting them this status. As with the IRB, and probably even more so, the process is very bureaucratic, difficult to navigate and opaque beyond belief.

On one particular day at work, I needed to bring some paperwork to OPM, the usual assortment of things: appeals applications, lost ID declarations, requests for the merging of family files, etc. There is one officer at OPM in particular who deals with these sorts of requests. I’ve never become clear as to what her exact title is, but for my purposes she holds God-like status, able to grant or refuse almost any of the requests I have. There are always crowds of asylum seekers huddled in the waiting room hoping to see her, but on this day I slipped into her office ahead of the throngs. Because OPM works frequently with RLP, they are relatively tolerant of our frequent meetings, and generally willing to let us pop into the office when we come by

The all-powerful god-like officer, whom I’ll call Vicky, was occupied with a client when I arrived, but quickly wrapped up her conversation to turn to me. She greeted me as the client stood up to leave, and the client had one last quick exchange with Vicky in Swahili before exiting the office. Seemingly in reaction to whatever words she’d just exchanged with her client, Vicky turned back to me, grabbing a box from behind her desk and placing it on the desk it front of me.

“Do you know these?” she asked me. It was a box of sanitary napkins. My mind was racing – why should I know these particular sanitary napkins? Did they have special magic properties? What was going on? I remembered a newspaper article I’d read when I first arrived in Uganda about a local entrepreneur’s new project – sanitary napkins made very cheaply out of local materials, affordable for girls attending rural schools and easily disposable, the main problems facing adolescent school-age girls coping with menstruation. I concluded that the sanitary napkins on the desk in front of me must be these new sustainable Ugandan-made pads.

“Yes, I think so,” I replied. “Aren’t they the ones made locally in Uganda?”

“No,” Vicky replied firmly, “they are international sanitary napkins,” (with extra emphasis on the word international, in case I should conclude that these were merely shoddy Ugandan-made products). “They are very good quality, the best available. Would you like to buy some?”

A representative of the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda is trying to sell me sanitary pads? I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation. So I did what I usually do – I blurted out the truth. “I don’t use pads,” I replied.

Vicky’s curiosity was piqued. She leaned forward across her desk, looking very interested in what I had to say. “Ahhh, you use tampons?” she asked me.

“No, not necessarily,” I replied. Vicky was confused, and I felt that I had no choice but to embark on an explanation of alternatives to tampons and pads. Vicky was very curious, and asked lots of questions.

Once we’d finished our conversation about menstruation and sanitary napkins and tampons, we passed to what Vicky seemed to feel was the much less interesting subject: my clients and their futures as refugees in Uganda. Vicky’s attention waned visibly, and she rushed me through what I had to say.

“No, we can’t handle that – UNHCR has to deal with it,” in reference to a client who has been unable to obtain asylum seeker status for almost a year because of issues around his repatriation.

“OK, give it to me, I’ll look at it later,” in reference to a client whose testimony has been lost not once, but twice, by OPM, and as a result has been without status for two years in Uganda. And so on.

Evidently buying sanitary napkins is an easier mission to accomplish at the OPM than resolving issues of status for asylum seekers.

UNLESS the right sum of money enters the right person’s pocket, I was later to learn.

A group of RLP’s clients have formed an organization called the Association of Torture Victims, or ATV. ATV is supported by RLP, provided with space for meetings and occasionally given funding for its activities. In the last week of June ATV organized anti-torture day, inviting torture victims as well as various organizations involved with torture victims to attend. The event took place in the field of Old Kampala Secondary School, across the street from RLP. Three big tents were set up for attendees, and various speeches and performances took place, including music and acting.

One of the highlights of the day was a series of skits put together by members of ATV meant to communicate their experiences as asylum seekers in Kampala. OPM was one of the organizations featured in one of the skits. The actor playing an OPM representative, as part of the skit, asked an asylum seeker for money in order to process his application, a procedure which is meant to be free. The asylum seeker had no choice but to hand over the money in order to proceed with his application in a timely manner.

After the skits wrapped up, speeches began. Various people got up and spoke, including Mama Eunice, the much-loved head of the Legal and Psychosocial Department at RLP. Her heartfelt words drew much applause from the large audience.

The next person to take the microphone was a representative of OPM, who, after pronouncing some insincere words on the plight of torture victims, proceeded to launch into a defence of her agency, stating outright in response to the earlier skit that OPM officials never take bribes. This is not the way OPM operates, she explained. The agency is staffed by honest folks who wouldn’t dare do such a thing!

On this warm day in the middle of the school field with the sun beating down on us, this questionable statement drew the liveliest reaction of the day from the hot, hungry audience. The ATV members and other clients of RLP in attendance, who were numerous, began waving their arms in the air and booing so loudly that they drowned out the words of the OPM representative. Anyone who may have been dozing at that point was rudely awakened.

The message from the audience was clear. Do OPM representative take bribes? Ha! Is the sky blue? Do Ugandans eat matooke? The OPM representative, looking embarrassed and unsure of herself, rushed through the end of her speech and hurried back to her chair to take a seat.

I wonder how many Ugandan shillings you have to slide into an OPM representative’s palm to get a box of high-quality international sanitary napkins along with your refugee status determination. I suppose I’ll never know. But any women in Kampala looking for some top-notch pads, ask for Vicky at the OPM. Maybe she can help you out, for the right price of course.

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