Women in Uganda

DSC_0188I’ve been in Uganda for an amazing three weeks, the time has sailed by and I have yet to really miss home. That said, this last week has left me feeling slightly disconnected, as l watched various news channels and scanned social media (whenever the temperamental internet allows it) I saw hundreds of women marching across the world and the resulting news coverage. Forwarding of the rights’ of women is something I care deeply about. In the UK I am fortunate enough through my work to support young women to do exactly that.
The Women’s March has left me viewing Uganda through the lens of women’s rights. With families struggling to afford education; boys are often prioritised and sent to DSC_0008school, women perform gendered roles which leave them supporting large families with little or no independent income, legislation is interpreted so that the way women dress can lead to them being arrested, mortality in childbirth is high as are rates of domestic violence and HIV, female genital mutilation still exists in some traditional communities. Arriving in Mbale you are warned as a woman not to go out unless you have someone with you and to dress modestly. But, what has struck me the most is the many ways in which women challenge the culture, self organise  and empower themselves and others. I have met many men who are allies to women and celebrate their political power.

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When I first arrived in Mbale I visited Bungkho Rural Development Centre; an organisation that educates on sustainable farming techniques and equips people with skills that help them to develop an income. The work that they discussed and promoted when I visited along with students from the University of South Wales were the self-organised women’s support groups. The idea behind the projects is  for women in communities to come together and build incomes and become self sufficient as well as learning about things like family planning, HIV prevention and nutrition. The philosophy behind the project is, if you change the life of a woman, you change the life of a whole family. It is recognised that women spend  more of their time in their immediate surroundings, with poverty in rural areas it is often the men that leave for urban areas to try and generate income, so women are best place to affect change for the better, this is of course because in Uganda women still take on the domestic roles and with large families there aren’t options for employment. We were privileged to be some of the first muzungos to visit a village where some of these groups were active. The women really understood their political power. Over the years they had struggled with poor quality roads (and by road I mean dirt tracks washed away by flooding) They had spent time repairing the roads themselves and eventually had been so disappointed with the local politician’s commitment to improving the situation, they actually organised and had him voted out at the 2016 election, apparently losing your seat is almost unheard of here. As I listened to this story I found myself grinning at the understanding women had over their political power, it felt like a stark contrast when thinking about the low voter registration among young women in the UK, as they feel so disengaged by their politicians.

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Bushkori Christian Centre, where I am spending 4 days a week is led by a remarkable woman has worked tirelessly for 30 years. While the organisation is not a women specific organisation I have witnessed small acts that have made significant changes to women’s lives. While women are less likely to go to school in the first place, the ones that do make it to school are likely to be affected by things that women in the West would not even consider. Families struggle to meet the costs of food let alone sanitary products, which of course means women go without and for a few days a month do not attend school. As a result BCC taught older girls to make and care for reusable menstrual products (RUMPS) it has made huge changes to the attainment of girls in the school. On Thursday I went to a thanksgiving celebration at Joshua Primary School at BCC. Five pupils at the school had obtained top marks for their exams, of the five one of them was a girl. There was a prize of 100,000 shillings (around £25) which was supposed to be awarded to the top performer. With five potential recipients the school’s spiritual leader awarded it to the girl, acknowledging that in her lifetime she would experience much more hardship than the boys around her. It felt significant, Uganda is an incredibly religious country and the way spiritual leaders act informs everyone around them. To speak about the challenges that women face would have been hugely educational.

IMG_1420While visiting a large ‘slum’ in Mbale, we met community groups where women were leaders. It was striking to hear the debates about the most pressing issues in the community, while many people focused on the need for clean water and sanitation, it was often the women who talked about innovative ways to address the social problems within the communities, alcoholism, domestic abuse and prostitution. Before I arrived in Uganda I honestly didn’t think I would see in women enter into public debate about such challenging subjects, but they do, and they make an enormous impact on the communities they work with.

Uganda is at the beginning of a long journey. My expectations of gender differences in Uganda have been challenged in ways I never expected.

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