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”.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.
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.