For more than a decade, sugarcane growing has been one of the economic activities in Busoga sub-region.
This has flourished due to Kakira sugar factory, one of the pioneer sugar processing plants, where farmers supply their sugarcane.
Due to the increasing demand of sugar in the country, Kakira sugar factory has lost its monopoly in the region with sugar processing plants springing up. Among those are Kaliro sugar and allied industries located in Kaliro District, Mayuge sugar factory and Kamuli sugar.
As a result, the high competition among the industries has boosted the morale of farmers and created employment opportunities. Many residents have been employed as out growers, transporters, casual labourers among others.
These employment opportunities have also registered a rare precedent of women flocking sugarcane plantations to work as cutters and lifters.
Most of these jobs were a preserve for men but this has since changed.
In Mayuge District, the number of women working as casual labourers in cane plantations has increased. When I visited some plantations in Buwaya and Imanyiro sub-counties, you would think there is a mini women’s communal meet.
I watched women busy cutting sugarcane while others were carrying it on their shoulders to a waiting truck at Nsago village, Buwaya Sub-county.
The shamba owner, Juma Isabirye said out of the 45 labourers on his farm, 35 are women.
Women at work
What struck my mind was a woman ferrying sugarcane on her head with a child strapped to her back.
The woman identified as Rose Nabirye says she was forced to start working in sugarcane plantations to get money to support the family after her husband abandoned them.
“It is now a year since I started doing this work. My husband ran away leaving me with four children to take care of. I had no income of my own and the situation was getting out of hand. This is the only way I could help myself,” the 32-year-old explained.
Nabirye said there are paid Shs1,000 for each bundle of sugarcane (a bundle consists of about 12 sugarcane) they ferry. The women carry the cane from the wetland where they are planted (about 500 metres to two kilometres) to dry land onto waiting trucks.
Nabirye says she leaves home at about 10am after digging and goes to the shamba.
“On average every day I carry five misingi (bundles) and I am paid Shs5000. I use the money to buy food, paraffin, drugs and other necessities at home,” she said.
Veronica Kwagala, another casual labourer said her husband is a drunkard so she has to work and take care of their seven children.
“I have done this work for two years. My husband is careless and it is up to me to run the family. Every day I get between Shs4,000 and 5,000. I use that money to provide books and pens to the children, buy paraffin and medicine among others,” she said.
What it entails
Ferrying sugarcane, however, seems to be tedious work. As such, it has attracted few women. Majority are in the sugarcane cutting section.
Just like the sugarcane lifters, cutters also work for Shs1,000 for every musingi. Their work entails cutting and bundling the sugarcane in an orderly manner before it is ferried.
Justine Nandego, 38, a resident of Kikubo village said for the past two years she has been cutting sugarcane and this work has helped her to support the family. “My husband sold part of the land and ran away. I was left with six children to take care of and the only alternative was to join cane cutting,” Nandego said.
She said she leaves home at about 7am and on average she cuts six misingi which fetches her about Shs6,000 daily.
She said they have a village bank and every week they save Shs 5,000 which is collected and given to members on a rotational basis.
They appealed to government to fund their village saving groups saying they need to work but are crippled by the lack of capital to set up income generating activities.
One thing that binds all these women is the fact that the money they are paid is not enough.
“Cutting cane, tying and arranging the bundles require energy and the Shs1,000 we get does not match the effort we use. The same applies to sugarcane-lifting. As a result, most people here suffer from chest pains,” said Nandego.
She added that sometimes their employers do not pay them in time.
What others say about the women
Nasulu Baliruno an outgrower in the area applauded the women for the determination and desire to work.
He said unlike some youth in the area who have resorted to taking drugs and engaging in criminal acts like theft, the women are fighting the biting poverty in households by doing manual labour.
On the issue of meagre pay given to casual labourers, he said wages are determined by the prices on which sugarcane are bought by factories.
The district councillor for Imanyiro Sub-county, Isaac Owori, said about 35 per cent of women in areas where sugarcane is grown are casual labourers in the plantations.
Patrick Mudhungu, the councillor for Buwaya Sub-county said women are determined to chase poverty from their homes and government should give them first priority when disbursing the earmarked women funds.
He said non-government organisations should also render assistance to households entangled in the poverty web.
It is important to note that most of the women who work in the plantations are not only widows or single women or those abandoned by their spouses. Many married women work in order to keep the family afloat. Most of these women have large families that cannot survive on one income.
In addition to “outside” work, they still have to take care of their own households and families. A mother is often up by 5am to get breakfast on the table. The children are tended to, house cleaned, and meals cooked. And this is all done on a daily basis.