Uganda: Why the women’s parliament mattered

(Above: WFD supported the first ever women’s parliament to take place in Uganda in July 2015)

“Their trend of advocacy is different, their trend of passion is different” said former MP, Olivia Kabaale about women’s role in politics, “for example, in our parliament when the budget is being passed the women look at the health sector, or education of the girl child.”

Olivia Kabaale participated in the first ever women’s parliament to take place in Uganda organised by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in July 2015. At the time, she was a sitting MP in charge of the women’s desk in the Ugandan Parliament. in the Ugandan Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) who were instrumental in ensuring the buy in for the first ever women’s parliament to take place in East Africa.

Almost two years later and despite losing her seat in the February 2016 elections, Olivia is convinced that the women’s parliament brought real benefits to the women of Uganda. “We are very grateful that the women’s parliament took place” Olivia said, “if it could be an annual thing that would be very good, as we [Olivia remains an associate member of UWOPA] are looking at bringing together women in a united front for advocacy, for lobbying and to ensure that they are really entrenched in a democratic system of governance.”

The opportunity the women’s parliament provided for rural women, grassroots activists and members or parliament to connect and discuss issues that are truly important for Ugandan women, Olivia described as “a real milestone” in Uganda’s 52 years since independence.

“The challenges that rural women face were articulated, in fact the women were given good time [to talk] as we debated for the whole day and captured several things” Olivia explained. From healthcare to land rights, education of the girl child to domestic violence, the women’s parliament provided an opportunity to hear real testaments from women who had suffered and attempts to get these issues discussed at the national level. “Local women who come from the village articulated their issues and they felt involved, they felt considered and they felt they belonged in the country, so that was great” Olivia added.

(Above: Women from civil society participate at the Women’s Parliament alongside women MPs)

UWOPA played a key role delivering next steps; ensuring the debate was captured in an official record by the UWOPA Secretariat and encouraging members to table a report on the issues to the Gender Committee , through a motion tabled in the tenth parliament. The report covered “domestic violence, gender based violence and they also articulated about child abuse” Olivia explained, adding that “successfully two months after the women’s parliament the children’s act was amended .”

The benefits of the women’s parliament, however, were not only about getting issues that are important to women on the national political agenda. “They became leaders of sub-counties, so we feel happy that the first women’s parliament, organised to empower women, organised to make women gain that confidence, was a success” Olivia said. Inspiring and empowering women from different backgrounds in Uganda to get involved in politics was a fundamental goal.

Especially given that in any election period the number of women MPs can change , “we have around four women who made it” Olivia explained; “they contested, they went back after that empowerment and became members of parliament.” But, as Olivia found out when she unfortunately lost her seat it is not always that easy.

Despite this personal set back, Olivia remains committed to empowering other women parliamentarians in Uganda. “We give them support, as much as some of us are out [of parliament] we still encourage them” she said, explaining how she had provided training on the legislative process to new women MPs. “I passed on the skills and when they call on me I always come and assist” Olivia shared proudly, adding that her top tip was to focus on issues where you can really make a difference, like the education of the girl child.

Despite the success of the women’s parliament, there is still a long way to go in Uganda and around the world to achieve equality for women. “We need more women chairpersons of districts and we need more women leaders in various categories” Olivia added, “we feel that if we encourage the leaders, we sensitise the leaders then domestic violence can be reduced.”

WFD’s EU funded programme has ended but we remain committed to supporting women, youth and other marginalised groups in Uganda to engage fully in a democratic system that works for them.

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Improving capacity of journalists to report on CEDAW

(Above: Cutting season is about to start in Sebei, Eastern Uganda. An article on the topic was celebrated at WFD refresher workshop on implementation of CEDAW)

“By talking about these issues, it feeds the community with knowledge” says Joyce Chemitai, Bureau Chief at Daily Monitor Publications in Uganda. “I realised we were not doing anything on gender related issues, so [the WFD sponsored training] triggered me to get into gender reporting.”

From land rights to domestic violence, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) should ensure women are protected against a range of issues that impact on their lives. Journalism in Uganda tackles many different topics, but coverage of violations of CEDAW is lacking. Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s work supporting the Ugandan Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) training of journalists is laying the ground work for changes to traditional attitudes regarding women. Journalism can be instrumental in increasing recognition of existing international and domestic legislation in place to protect women from discrimination. Our work encouraging journalists to report on issues related to gender has contributed to increased levels of awareness within communities about the challenges women face.

“Traditionally in our communities we think many of the wrongs that happen are good, it has happened because it should happen, like violence against women” Joyce said. But through her writing about gender based violence Joyce is contributing to changing that perception.

One of the major challenges journalists face is accessing information for their reports. “I have done a few pieces and even currently I am doing a project on men” Joyce explained. “I realised out of my interactions with the communities that many men neglected their families. The women are the ones carrying everything at home. If you go to the police, to NGOs who take complaints on women’s issues the major complaint is negligence. Men go drink, they come back and beat up the women” she continued.

Through the support provided by WFD, Joyce was educated about CEDAW, how it can protect women and how to monitor when the convention is violated – techniques that Joyce is putting into practice to get the information she needs for her current piece. “I am in touch with the police to compile for me [the figures], so I ask them to give me a report of CEDAW related cases, of child abuse, of violence against women” she said, as well as contacting the federation of female lawyers and NGOs like ActionAid to get statistics on domestic abuse and female genital mutilation. Monitoring violations and reporting on them increases knowledge within the community and holds law enforcement to account, although not without challenges.  “Sometimes even police are compromised, you go to them and you want information, but they tell you “No, we are still investigating, this is not happening”.”

(Above: Joyce, far right, participates in WFD refresher workshop on implementation of CEDAW alongside district councillors )

That’s why cooperation is key. By supporting several journalists in the Sebei region of Uganda increased coordination and sharing of information was facilitated through the programme. Joyce noted the value of continued coordination with journalists from the training and she tries to encourage ones who did not participate to spread knowledge on issues related to CEDAW like gender based violence or female genital mutilation. “When there is an issue [to report on] I always call someone and I am like “Why don’t you take this up? There is this issue that is happening” Joyce said.

“Now the local radios here also call the police or local government officers who are directly responsible for a case” Joyce explained “when you talk about it on media the community will realise it is a bad thing.” It’s not just Joyce and fellow journalists who have benefitted from WFD’s support. Increased reporting on CEDAW and women’s rights is helping to transform damaging traditional attitudes in rural Uganda that impact negatively on women and girls. “There is a feedback session that helps community members to also get involved in case there are any problems, so they can help to report it, they can help to take that person to hospital. It builds confidence among the victims, or just community members who now understand” Joyce said.

And the more members of the community who understand the damaging impact discrimination against women and girls has on the individuals involved, the community they come from and Uganda as a whole, the more likely that CEDAW and the accompanying domestic legislation will stand a chance of being implemented effectively and women’s interests truly represented.

Joyce’s story demonstrates how important values are in a democratic system. Freedom of expression through an actively engaged press that is not afraid to report on controversial topics can play a fundamental role holding the government and parliament to account. Asking questions about traditional norms and reporting on abhorrent cases of gender based violence ensures this important issue stays on the political agenda.

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CEDAW: Ugandan journalists give ‘voice to the voiceless’

Of all the stories she covered reporting on gender issues in Uganda, journalist Abalo Ireme Otto says the one which upset her most involved an eviction. “A woman was thrown out of the house by her husband,” she says. “Her children witnessed the scuffle.”

The press in Uganda frequently come across distressing stories like this. Another journalist recalls: “A woman was raped and she went to the police to report it. But instead a policeman kept her as a wife for some time.” These shocking incidents underline the importance of seeking change.

Reducing violence against women and girls will involve a long-running campaign. But it is one the Ugandan government is committed to, having passed a raft of legislation in 2010 bringing the country into line with the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The challenge now is implementation. In particular one issue keeps appearing again and again, reflected by a case study described by journalist Emmy Ojave: “A woman who was denied access to land, together with her children, after her husband’s death.”

Tackling discrimination against women

Land rights for widows are protected by law under CEDAW, but this does not automatically result in justice for bereaved women. In economies heavily dependent on agriculture, land rights are extremely important. So when married women are separated from their spouses, either by divorce or by death, their in-laws often seize control of her possessions and property. In Uganda – as across much of East Africa – these discriminatory practices often clashes with the law.

In order to tackle this and the other issues covered by CEDAW, Westminster Foundation for Democracy supported the Ugandan Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) in its training of journalists in December 2014. “It shall help to sensitize the masses on their rights to gender equality,” as journalist Komakech Geoffrey described the training’s purpose. WFD’s goal has been to improve reporting on CEDAW in a bid to improve understanding of the new laws which enforce it.

Woman Cooking in Uganda - Mark JordahlJournalists spread awareness

Since then many of the journalists have updated WFD about the difference their subsequent reporting has made. “After the training I was able to trace down a survivor of gender-based violence and exposed her plight to the world,” Julius Ocungi says. “The response to her was overwhelming, because she was beloved. She was exposed to humanitarian organisations who helped in treating the citizen.”

Emmy Ojave has a similar example .”I advocated for the rights of a widow who was denied access to her late husband’s land,” she explains. “I wrote about the role of women in bringing about change. They mediated and the woman with children was given a plot of land for cultivation and construction.”

These journalists have contributed to raising awareness about CEDAW and in the process helped establish women’s rights. All those updating WFD say they have much more to offer, too. “I expect to accord more women and young girls the chances of having justice served to them,” Julius Ocongi says. “I feel revamped to do more to help our women out there,” Abalo Ireme Otto adds.

‘A voice for the voiceless’

For these journalists, trained by UPPA with WFD’s support, their work can make a real difference to citizens’ lives. Their role is to be a “voice of the voiceless”, as Komakech Geoffrey puts it. Wilfred Ronny Okot is more specific. His role, he says, is “to inform, educate and empower the public on their roles, responsibilities, contributions and rights”. For Abalo Ireme Otto, her mission is simple: “To stand for the truth in the fight against women discrimination.”

WFD’s 30-month programme supporting CEDAW is approaching its closure, but we aim to offer further support to the Ugandan Parliament in the years to come. In the meantime our work with Ugandan journalists has changed reporting on these issues – and even shaped the views of the reporters themselves. One anonymous journalist confessed to having changed attitudes because of the training. “Culture had a serious effect on my way of reporting,” he admitted, “since some cultural practices promoted discrimination against women. But now it won’t affect me.”

Featured images: Flickr
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From Georgia to Westminster: The reform of human rights committees

(Above, Left-right: Nicole Piché (Coordinator All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights), Eka Beselia (Chair of the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee in Georgia),  Anthony Smith (CEO, WFD), Les Allamby (Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission))

“Parliaments share a responsibility to protect and realise human rights,” notes WFD’s new research paper sizing up parliamentary performance on this critical issue. As Georgia’s positive experience shows, effective oversight of human rights can make a big difference.

The findings of the report were the subject of the fourth meeting of the Westminster Community of Practice in the Houses of Parliament this week.

Ms Eka Beselia, Chair of the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee in Georgia, kicked off the discussion by explaining how WFD’s programme supporting the Committee to engage with civil society had benefited from the assessment.

She spoke of the absence of “institutional experience” within the Georgian Parliament to tackle human rights abuses when she started in her role as Chair in 2012. But now, she said, people see the work of the committee “as a normal and ordinary process”.

The paper, ‘Strengthening Parliamentary Capacity for the Protection and Realisation of Human Rights’, presented the findings of assessments into the effectiveness of parliamentary human rights committees in Macedonia, Serbia, Tunisia, Uganda and Ukraine, as well as Georgia.

The research is based on the outcomes of an ‘assessment tool’ developed by WFD, in partnership with the Parliaments, Rule of Law and Human Rights project at the University of Oxford.

Reform was “very difficult”, Ms Beselia added, “but if you want to change reality, it is possible.” The Georgian Parliament’s acceptance of the recommendations from the Georgian Human Rights Committee based on the WFD assessment tool demonstrates this.

However, this success does not detract from the difficulty of seeking initial reform on a sensitive and decisive subject. This was something which Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Nicole Piché, the coordinator and legal adviser for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights in Westminster, both had experience of.

Les recalled the “long and slow, but nonetheless important, journey with bumps in the road” that Northern Ireland embarked on following the end of conflict there. He spoke passionately about engaging parliaments on human rights work. Rather than dictating views on human rights, he urged the importance of starting “where people are, and gently persuade them over to international standards.”

This approach was supported by Nicole, who outlined how the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights participates in “frank but respectful exchanges” with representatives from countries with poor human rights records. Giving “credit where credit is due” is essential, Nicole believes, especially when considering the “long road, with obstacles that can be frustrating, unpopular and time-consuming” that developing countries have to embark on.

Both praised Eka Beselia and her colleagues for their work on the Georgian Human Rights Committee, agreeing that political will was vital when seeking any reform to the parliamentary response to protecting human rights.

Ms Beselia explained how the political will in Georgia changed after the 2012 elections. The systematic problems with key institutions like the judiciary, police and penitentiary in Georgia led to “society wanting to change human rights standards.” Nicole Piché added that “entrenched vested interests are hard to change” without political will and the support of citizens.

Engaging citizens in the work parliaments do on human rights can be challenging. However, Les Allamby suggested that placing an emphasis on economic and social rights, can help put civil and political rights on the agenda. He emphasised the need to find out “what resonates with people’s lives, and start there.”

And this applies in Northern Ireland as much as it does in Georgia or Uganda, demonstrating what WFD has to offer transitioning and developing countries the most. “The UK,” as Anthony Smith concluded, “has a real diversity and richness of experience working on human rights which is good to share and learn from.”

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Uganda is in transition – to a stronger democracy

After an election campaign unlike any of its predecessors, it’s clear Uganda is changing.

Its citizens want a more effective, inclusive governance – and organisations like Westminster Foundation for Democracy can help them achieve this.

Most observers expected that Yoweri Museveni would be returned to power to begin a fifth presidential term. Cynics might suggest this – and the accompanying controversies surrounding polling day and its aftermath – means nothing but business as usual. But as the campaign which preceded it showed, Uganda’s democracy is steadily developing.

For the first time, Uganda’s elections were dominated by three genuine contenders jostling for position. They were vying for support from young voters who are just as interested in what Uganda will look like in 2046 as they are in 2016. In a country where the average age is 15, and amid the rapid growth of internet usage, mobile phones and social media, the style of campaigning felt very different.

It’s clear that the Parliament will play an increasingly important role in connecting citizens with politicians. This really matters because democracy is as much about what happens between elections as it is on the days when votes are actually cast.

Parties united on gender rights

Take gender rights, an issue WFD is focused on strengthening in Uganda. The country has made great strides towards strengthening women’s rights in its first decade of multiparty politics. New laws passed in recent years targeting the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) reflect the Government’s determination to improve the lives of Ugandan women.

The problem is that implementing CEDAW has proved challenging, particularly in the north and east. These were, after all, areas devastated by the Lord’s Resistance Army for nearly two decades. WFD believes we can help connect civil society organisations with local and national parliamentarians to accelerate the process of positive change in all parts of Uganda.

Our EU-funded programme is working to enhance civil engagement and political dialogue on the implementation of legislation supporting CEDAW, with the ultimate goal of reducing the levels of violence suffered by women and girls. Our 30-month programme, which started in May 2014, covers Kapchorwa and Bukwo districts in the east, and Gulu and Nwoya in the north. CSOs, local councils and Parliament are participating in activities which help them scrutinise CEDAW legislation more effectively.

Our combination of training events and workshops for CSOs, journalists, district council staff and parliamentary researchers are showing real progress. Our main partners, Gulu Women’s Economic Development and REACH, report that citizens are more aware of their rights because of our combined work. Better public discourse on human rights and democracy is essential, which is why we’re so pleased to have organised the first ever Women’s Parliament in Uganda in June 2015.

“This Parliament empowered me to speak up and defend my position as a leader,” Asio Rose Mary, a member of Malaba Town Council, said of the June 2015 event. “We are fighting problems at the grassroots.” Overturning deep-set cultural attitudes will not come easily, but local leaders like Asio believed they can be challenged and, ultimately, overturned. It’s at the local level where change will take place – but it’s in Kampala, at events like the Women’s Parliament, where the instigators of that change were being encouraged by WFD.

An opportunity for Uganda’s Parliament

Events like the Woman’s Parliament matter because they bring together politicians with civil society stakeholders. Party politics will always play a big role in these exchanges, but our focus is on supporting Uganda’s institutions achieve better outcomes for its citizens. In the five years which follow these elections, WFD has a lot more to contribute.

The great positive we’ve found in our current programme on gender inequality is that politicians of all parties are committed to tracking the implementation of existing laws and policies.

This presents a big opportunity for the Parliament, which can be strengthened as an institution by improving its post-legislative scrutiny function. Better accountability and oversight of broader human rights issues, the justice system and the sound management of public finances are obvious next steps.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment will remain a central focus of our operations in Uganda. But we hope that the positive changes adopted in this area can spread good governance across all areas of public policy, and trickle down to local government officials and civil society too. WFD can use its strong relationships with the Speaker, UWOPA and key international stakeholders to work to strengthen the newly-elected Parliament across all these areas.

WFD’s relationships

That means partnering with both national and international organisations like WFD which want to work in Uganda for the long-term. We’re committed to remaining in the country and continuing the work we’ve started after our current programme ends in December 2016.

Whether it’s strengthening local and national parliaments’ policy oversight, holding the government to account, strengthening representation, or encouraging more citizen participation in fostering change, our work contributes towards our overall vision: a Uganda where inclusive and effective democratic governance makes a real difference towards citizens’ lives across the country.

Our approach applies whoever emerges on top in these elections. What matters is that Uganda is changing – and WFD stands ready to work with Uganda’s politicians, civil society and citizens to help them shape their country’s future.

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Speak up and speak out: Our message to women this International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Every day across the world, women experience discrimination purely because of their gender.

It might not be instantly recognisable. Discrimination can take discrete forms – unequal wages, lack of women in leadership roles at top FTSE 100 companies. But it exists, and can often take a violent turn.

As the world marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, take a look at how three of our programmes are finding practical ways to help achieve further change…

Empowering women in Uganda

In July this year WFD coordinated Uganda’s first Women’s Parliament – a major part of our EU-funded programme in the country. Tackling violent behaviour towards women is at the heart of what we are doing, and this programme aims to ensure the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is actually implemented. To do this WFD wants to encourage a greater dialogue between women, civil society and politicians to ensure that issues which matter to women are dealt with at the national level.

What is so shocking about the situation for women and girls in Uganda isn’t just the harrowing experience of violence and discrimination but the feeling that there is nowhere to turn, that this is normal, that they deserve this treatment. One of the wonderful outcomes of the Women’s Parliament is how it empowered women to speak out and raise issues of importance to them. Beatrice Chelangat, director of local NGO Gender REACH, highlighted how ground is being covered and progress is slowly being made: “People are more aware of female genital mutilation and sexual- and gender-based violence. They know it is a crime. Before people thought a woman is killed, that is it. They did not know some laws can protect them and it is a crime to abuse a woman.”

Our programme’s main goal is to ensure that women in Uganda understand how CEDAW can help them eliminate violence from their own lives and communities.

Uniting women across MENA

Our support for the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries to Combat Violence unites women from across ten nations to press for reforms to legislation that impacts on women and girls.

Take the most recent Coalition meeting that took place in early November. Its main goal was to create a space to discuss the revision of Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim. The coalition meetings provide a space in which women can share experiences of how discriminatory laws have been defeated in other Arab nations and find a way forward to tackle the issues with their respective parliaments. That is what Gilberte-Zouaine MP took from the latest meeting. She said: “We aspire throughout this conference to benefit from the experience of Arab countries who have been pioneers in this domain and to re-establish Lebanon’s commitment to tackling violence against women.”

It’s felt that this regional approach can gather momentum in favour of women’s rights across a region with an existing difficult context for women to work and live in.

The first step in this process is to raise awareness of the forms and consequences of violence. The more women know about their rights and how to access them, the easier it will be for them to take a stand. Secondly, having discussions on these issues across the region provides examples of best practice in how to deal with what is often perceived as a controversial issue amongst traditional elites. Finally, WFD has encouraged the development of Violence against Women Laws in four of the ten countries the Coalition operates in (Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon).

Together, these three steps will help provide solid progress for women who want to access justice. But getting the legislation through parliament is only the beginning. Changing cultural attitudes that discriminate against women is a long process, but we are confident the Coalition’s work will contribute toward this end.

Promoting women in politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Improving representation is one of WFD’s four outcomes, and it’s this which our programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina is focused on. Its emphasis is on providing practical help to get women into politics. By actively engaging with the media and civil society to ensure women are represented and listened to ahead of the 2016 local elections, the team hopes to yield some impressive results.

This autumn we’ve seen a series of local discussions bringing together local women councillors to discuss issues of importance ahead of the 2016 elections, like this event at the University of Mostar. A common theme which has emerged from these discussions is the critical role played by political parties. Alisa Hajdarevic (SDA Mostar), for example, mentioned the need to ensure women participate in the internal structures of the political parties to ensure they are equally represented. This is something that is surely felt here in the UK too – it was big news this year when the shadow Cabinet split roles 50/50 between men and women.

The debate over the relative merits of setting quotas for women will run and run. A quota is not a gateway to equality, which is why the work the Bosnia team is doing is so important. By using a range of different activities including training courses, public debates and media training they are providing women with the important skills they need to make a dent in the political landscape.


Change can be achieved, and in a relatively short period of time. Look at the UK: as recently as the 1990s it was legal to rape your partner if you were married. No longer. Women across the world trying to eliminate abhorrent laws which condone violence should believe that progress is possible. One hundred and eighty nine states have ratified CEDAW; the sustainable development goals put gender equality high on the agenda; and at WFD the focus is now on implementation and getting women represented in institutions that shape fundamental decisions. Now, more than ever, there is international momentum towards improving women’s rights.

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Promoting women’s and girls’ rights in Uganda: ‘This Parliament empowered me’

Ending sexual harassment, domestic violence and other forms of gender inequality in Uganda isn’t easy. But by helping local leaders and civil society organisations bring women together through the country’s first ever Women’s Parliament, Westminster Foundation for Democracy is helping gather momentum behind the campaign for real change.

In recent years, Uganda has taken some big steps to implement the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It’s passed a raft of legislation in recent years to that end. But as we’ve heard, implementation is proving difficult.

“Most women have been blocked by culture,” Olive Gidugu, a union activist based in the Sironko District, told us. Their education is neglected during childhood because “in our culture, girls are prepared to be housewives”, she explained. Illiteracy in adult life is coupled with a culture that demands, in Olive’s words, that “if a man comes to you, you can’t deny them”.

Nearly 200 women participated in the first ever Women’s Parliament in Kampala

We’ve heard real-life experiences of a whole range of problems: unfairness to women in the a corrupt legal system, denial of access to and control of resources, limited participation in decision-making, and many others. Looking back at the two three-hour plenary sessions of the first Women’s Parliament, Betty Bwamika, an attendee from the Mpigi district, said she was “touched” by the story she heard of the teacher who had to give up her job because of sexual harassment. Milly Molly Omach of Oyam district recalled the story of a woman who left her alcoholic husband. “He was very drunk and hanged himself. The day after, the in-laws blamed her. The culture here always blames the women. The women who want to help her don’t know what to do as they are not aware of their rights.”

The consequences of these attitudes are far-reaching, as the statistics show. Sixty-eight per cent of married women aged 15-49 in Uganda have experienced domestic violence. In the Eastern region, 85% were found to be aware of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2010, but there awere reports of people avoiding arrest despite continuing the practice. Property ownership is also problematic: Furthermore, 90% reported that the clan leadership dominates decision-making over property ownership – so when land is distributed to sons after a death in the family, for example, the views of mothers and daughters are largely ignored.

Left to right: Ms Rosette Sayson Meya (EU); Hon. Jovah Kamateka (chairperson, human rights committee); Hon. Safia Juuku Nalule (national representative for women with disabilities)

Changing this means bringing people together. And that is what happened on 7 July 2015, when over 150 women from across Uganda gathered in Kampala for the Women’s Parliament. The project, a bid to create an all-inclusive platform for dialogue on gender issues, is part of WFD’s EU-funded 30-month programme to protect and promote the rights of women and girls in Uganda’s northern and eastern regions.

It aims, as WFD’s programme manager Dorine Lakot puts it, to “increase the political discourse on women’s rights and issues”. Her goal was to make the Parliament “a vehicle for sharing good practice on local implementation of legislation with all other regions in Uganda, and to also feed into future policy issues and legislative amendments”.

Dorine Lakot (second from right, front row) with Women’s Parliament participants

As the Women’s Parliament progressed some striking stories emerged. Betty Bwamika praised a speaker who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army when she was nine. “She was able to stand and talk in front of everyone – it’s [speaking out like this is] very important for her to get hope for her children.” Another contributor explained she had become pregnant while in school, but her parents had put her back in school after she gave birth. “That’s inspiring and rare,” one attendee said. Asio Rose Mary, a member of Malaba Town Council, spoke of her own efforts to expose a fraudster who had stolen millions from the government. “I was pregnant and scared to lead this investigation… I escaped some strong threats against me,” she said. “I resisted and won the case for the government, but it was hard.”

Outside the Parliament building in Kampala

It’s hoped that by raising these issues in a single forum, their prominence in the debate across Uganda will spread.   “I hope to share a lot with women about the different testimonies,” Betty Bwamika said afterwards. “It’s important that women can express themselves – you can fight for your rights.” It’s not just a handful of delegates who can follow her lead, either. Around 200 stakeholders including legislators, development partners, journalists, academics and representatives of regional parliaments and central government, among others, gathered at the Women’s Parliament in July to hear these stories. They heard calls for more “sensitization” to the issues. They heard calls for women to gain more financial independence and for more girls to stay at school; currently just one in three girls manage to complete four years of secondary education. And they heard warnings about the dangers of women leaving Uganda’s poorer districts for work, only to find themselves trafficked to China or elsewhere.

Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, presided over the session

Increasing the political debate around women’s and girls’ rights  is a key goal of the civil society groups whose work WFD’s programme is supporting – particularly the Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalisation (GWED-G) organisation and the Gender Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (Gender REACH) organisations. The Women’s Parliament also supports the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association, a parliamentary caucus of women MPs. WFD is working closely with its staff to help it become a critical generator of political debate, oversight and scrutiny.

These organisations are steadily growing in confidence. “Where we have been implementing through WFD/EU funding,” explains Beatrice Chelangat, director of Gender REACH, “people are more aware of female genital mutilation and sexual- and gender-based violence. They know it is a crime. Before people thought a woman is killed, that is it. They did not know some laws can protect them and it is a crime to abuse a woman.” The gradual spread of understanding about the UN CEDAW convention is being facilitated by the activity of the Women’s Parliament and WFD’s broader programme in Uganda.

A young contributor makes her point during the plenary session

Attention is now shifting to the Ugandan Parliament, which campaigners hope will accept the recommendations of the Women’s Parliament. An important message from the July event is that more activity is needed at the It is seeking more activity at the regional level, where capacity-building, coaching and mentoring efforts will be most effective – especially when that work takes place in cooperation with local civil society groups like GWED-G in Gulu. Its executive director, Pamela Angwech, says: “We’ve taught local leaders to empower them to become more active on this matter.” Gulu is quickly moving up the regional rankings as a result of implementing the Domestic Violence Act 2010.

Gulu’s  success shows why many of those at the Women’s Parliament are now seeking support for their cause at lower levels of governance. “We are fighting problems at the grassroots,” Asio Rose Mary declares. “This Parliament empowered me to speak up and defend my position as a leader.” Overturning deep-set cultural attitudes will not come easily, but local leaders like Asio believe they can be challenged and, ultimately, overturned. It’s at the local level where change will take place – but it’s in Kampala, at events like the Women’s Parliament, where the instigators of that change are being encouraged.

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