Eleanor Nabwiso believes that art forms like film and television are vital in helping spark vital conversations about how the world's most vulnerable groups of people are treated.
The award-winning Ugandan actress and director, through her production company Nabwiso Films, uses these popular media to explore the most pressing issues in her country
“When my husband and I started the Nabwiso Films we wanted a company that not only entertains, but educates,” Nabwiso, 30, tells Global Citizen.
Gender-based violence is one of the key social issues Nabwiso is working to tackle.
A survey carried out in Uganda in 2016 found that some 22% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 had experienced some form of sexual violence. It also found that 13% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 report sexual violence annually.
In Nabwiso’s latest movie, Bed of Thorns, the character Stella is seen preparing for her wedding day. But as the film progresses, her soon-to-be husband becomes increasingly violent.
Stella’s character is inspired by a very personal encounter of Nabwiso's with gender-based violence (GBV).
“I had a friend of mine going through physical domestic violence, that’s what got me interested in this issue,” Nabwiso says.
From there, she read more about GBV in Uganda and discovered that it was far more common than she had realised.
According to a 2018 USAID report, Uganda has one of the highest rates of physical and sexual violence against girls and women in the world.
It particularly highlights sexual coercion as being a “common” issue — with 21% of women reporting that their spouse or partner had physically forced them to have sex when they didn’t want to.
It further cites a study of rural secondary school students in Mbarara, which found that, of girls who had had sex, 43% reported having had sex because they “were too afraid to say no.”
Nabwiso tells Global Citizen that as well as exploring the different forms that GBV comes in, she also wanted Bed of Thorns to examine the root causes of GBV, and its repercussions for survivors.
“Violence comes with a lot of complications from suicidal deaths, depression, divorce, broken homes … I could go on,” she says. “With emotional violence, comes loss of self-esteem; with physical violence, comes deformation, death, and incapacitation."
“And the worst is sexual violence that comes with sexually-transmitted diseases, unwanted or early pregnancies, fertility complications, and mental illness," she adds.
The Luganda language name of the film, Tosirika, means “don’t keep quiet”.
“I knew I would be letting a woman or man out there know about gender-based violence, and not to keep quiet about it,” Nabwiso continues . “I knew it had to be addressed to save someone out there.”
Bed of Thorns won the Africa Focus Award at the London Art House film festival in October. This victory was made even more important by the fact that the movie has an all-female cast and crew, making it a historic moment in Uganda’s film industry.
Screenings of the film in Uganda have been held in cinemas, theatres, and at teacher training colleges too.
Meanwhile, screenings have also been held in schools and at community events, which are then followed by discussions about the issues that arise in the film.
“The discussions are the biggest milestone that I have experienced as a result of the film,” says Nabwiso. “The engagement with audiences gives me the fulfilment knowing that the message is passed on and the effect is felt.”
Nabwiso says it’s important for Africa to confront some of its biggest social ills, and that the freedom of expression that movies and social media offers creatives like herself are the perfect tools.
In the past, Nabwiso Films has also produced a movie called Rain, about HIV and AIDS. It was used as an awareness campaign by a non-governmental organisation.
“We got reports that after watching it, over 45,000 people in different communities willingly tested for HIV,” she continues. “We are a voice to the silent majority.”
She adds: “We believe in using film to speak out about issues in our communities that are not freely spoken about."