Has politics overshadowed the Women’s Movement?

The Executive Director of Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), Ms Rita Aciro Lakor (centre), balances a pot of water on her head during the accessibility to clean water march recently. The Women’s Movement was vibrant and highly visible in the 1980s and 1990s in highlighting causes that affected women’s rights as opposed to its stance today. PHOTO BY RACHEL MABALA

Not many people today understand what WM is all about. Maybe this is because urban women have ‘arrived’.
Dr Maggie Kigozi, an entrepreneur and feminist, sums it up; “The fight for women’s rights is no longer as exciting as it used to be. Girls are now more educated so there is no one to fight for anymore.”

The WM is as old as 1905, when the Church Missionary Society, set up Gayaza High School, a girls only school. In 1946, the Uganda Council of Women was formed to promote women’s concerns, followed years later, by the formation of Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
In 1960, the National Council for Women lobbied for women to be included in the LEGICO. All these efforts, came to an end in 1972 when president Idi Amin banned women’s organising (NGOs).
During the Obote II regime, Mbowa’s Anthem was sung for the first time on International Women’s Day. In her speech, First Lady, Miria Obote, encouraged women to continue organising and remain firm against oppression.

On July, 30 1985, the Okello regime ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Women held a march for peace, highlighting the suffering of girls and women in Luwero Triangle and at roadblocks in Kampala and surrounding areas.
Ms Perry Aritua, executive director, Women Democracy Network Uganda (WDN), says by the time the National Resistance WM (NRM) captured power in 1986, the world was already moving towards women’s emancipation.
“The President, being a politician, was aware that he needed to capitalise on the support of women.”

That capitalisation resulted in women’s rights in the social, political, and education sectors being cemented in the new Constitution. However, along the way, the gains were lost to ‘gender mainstreaming.’

Trailblazing women’s rights
So strong was the WM that when Sharma Kooky, a Ugandan of Indian descent, brutally murdered his wife, Renu Joshi, in 1997, women activists rose up in arms and demonstrated. Kooky was sentenced to death by the High Court in 2000.
In 2012, when he received a presidential pardon on humanitarian grounds, the same activists condemned the president’s action as an injustice to women.

In 1999, Buganda Kingdom got embroiled in a bitter fight with women activists over a child, Sarah Nakku.

According to tradition, a mock marriage was to be conducted between the Kabaka and Nakku. On April 15, 1999, 16 local and international women’s groups visited Katikiro Joseph Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere to get clarity over the ‘alleged case of child abuse.’
Activists, led by Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) took out an advert in the New Vision against the outdated custom. An incensed Ssemwogere insisted the mock marriage would proceed as planned.
He challenged the women to protest against the Catholic Church, which turned young girls into nuns. Six months later, though, Ssemwogerere announced that the Nakku tradition had been dropped.
On May 4, 2005, hundreds of women demonstrated against President Museveni’s directive that the debate on the Domestic Relations Bill (DRB) be shelved.

Marching under the slogan: “No DRB, no Kisanja,” women handed over a memorandum to then Speaker, Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi.

It is against that backdrop of this vibrant organising power of yesteryears that many wonder why activists remained silent when several women were brutally raped and murdered in Wakiso District.
It was only after the body of the 23rd victim had been found that a poorly organised vigil was held in Banda, near Kampala.

Asked whether the WM is dying, Ms Monica Emiru Enyou, executive director of National Association of Women’s Organisations in Uganda (NAWOU), says, “How do people want the whole wheel to move? You haven’t seen women on the streets but we are part of civil society.
“In 2013, we matched in white dresses carrying empty saucepans because there was a famine. We formulated the Women’s Manifesto and have contributed to statements against the age limit debate. The WM is not dead,” she says.

Politics took the shine off the WM
In the late 1980s and 1990s, before the introduction of multiparty politics, the government looked upon the prospect of women working together as a block with benevolence. Nowadays, though, with the narrowing of political space, when a woman speaks out against maternal mortality, sanitary pads, or absence of drugs in hospitals, government will immediately label her as subscribing to the Opposition.
“The government has moles in many of the women’s organisations,” Ms Margaret Ssentamu, the executive director of Uganda Media Women Association (UMWA), says, adding that today, women take a more cautious stand on their rights.
The lack of understanding of what a multiparty dispensation entails seems to have dealt a blow to the WM.

“It has taken us a number of years to get certain women to work together simply because they belong to different political parties,” Ms Rita Aciro, the executive director of UWONET says. She adds: “They think it is evil to work with a sister from another party. Women are divided along political lines. They only advance their party line, not the issues affecting women.”
Women’s organisations are having difficulty straddling the political line, with some arguing that their role is not to question governance issues.

Ms Ann Nkutu, a consultant for the Nordic Consulting Group (U) Ltd, and a member of the Feminist Forum, says, “Being afraid to speak out is what has killed the WM. There is a struggle between government and civil society organisations (CSOs). Government feels we are blaming it, but CSOs are here to hold government accountable, not to sing its praises.”
Ms Enyou believes women politicians have snatched the 30 per cent representation in government that women won.

“A Woman MP believes she is representing the entire district. Her priority is not women. This is where we have deviated as the WM. The thinking was that if there is 30 per cent representation in the political and governance spaces, women will speak out for the rights of women. But, who are these women speaking for now?”
Women in Parliament will argue – and rightly so – that they do not owe the WM anything since they funded their own campaigns, with the help of their political parties.

Ms Sheila Kawamara Mishambi puts it down to the political system. “We are in a dictatorship, which is trying to gag CSOs. Any kind of advocacy is construed as anti-government. The powers that be are paranoid and restrict organising (assemblies) of any kind, including women’s. How can the WM thrive in such an environment?”
Indeed, women with influence chose to remain silent when the President went back on his word to provide free sanitary towels to school girls. Some went as far as saying this topic should never have been brought to the public arena.
From 1986 to 2005, because there was no real threat to power, it was easier for women to respond to issues that affected them. Now with the Public Order Management Act (POMA) and the NGO Bill, it is impossible to organise without notifying the police. Twice, women activists have met the police, or written to them, giving notice that they intend to demonstrate against the murders of women in Wakiso. On both occasions, police denied them permission.
“In Entebbe, we ended up having a memorial where some women wrote the names of the murdered women on helium balloons and released them into the sky,” Ms Nkutu says, adding: “Someone will ask how that changes the situation, but if you are unable to change things immediately, you show solidarity with those affected.”

Donor’s waning interest
Many women’s organisations are donor-funded and of late there seems to be donor apathy about funding activities that only benefit a section of the population.
“We compete for the few available resources. Ninety per cent of donor funds are going to only 10 organisations in this country. Some of these organisations do not even fight for women’s rights anymore. To attract donor funds, they have become activist organisations,” Ms Ssentamu explains.
Ms Enyou, however, blames the decreased funding to global trends.

“Before 2000, women were an issue because you could clearly see they were disadvantaged. Right now, though, it does not come out so easily because we have reached a certain level. Probably, donors are asking, ‘If there are no health services, should it just be about women or the whole community?’ So, they have found other ways to deal with social issues, away from women’s organisations,” she says.
International politics has dictated that the focus of donors is on youth and refugees. Uganda is obliged by UN Conventions to host refugees. These refugees, though, come with challenges.
“They come with their cultures, which are not the same as ours,” Ms Aciro says.

According to her, “some of these cultures permit teenage marriage, domestic violence, and the gagging of women’s voices. Since refugees are given land in the hosting communities, if we do not address these cultural differences in the refugee setting, we shall see overflows in the hosting communities.”
With a restriction in funding, the input of women’s organisations towards equal social rights and opportunities, especially in the rural setting, is being curtailed.

Non-inclusive messages
As the WM gained traction, in some corners, women’s rights came to symbolise the emasculation of men. In the messages churned out by the WM, the country was divided into two camps; the victims (women) and the oppressors (men) driving away people who might have helped advance the cause of the WM.
“It is true that the way we have been communicating has affected our results,” Ms Aritua says, adding, “The word ‘feminism’ has been completely misunderstood. We need to start using words such as ‘equal rights’ and ‘equal opportunities’ instead of ‘women’s rights.’”

Indeed, there seems to be a boy/man crisis in this country. While the girl child was empowered, the boy child was ignored. He has grown up to be a totally patriarchal man who may eventually disempower the woman he lives with.
“It is true that in issuing out these messages, the older generation of women was trying to address the specific problems at the time, but as we move on, we need to start targeting the boy child,” Ms Aciro says, adding that gender is not about women, but both sexes.”
Although the WM is waking up to address the long term strategy of involving men, the magnitude and outreach is still minimal. With the world changing in many aspects, the WM in Uganda cannot remain the same, fighting old battles and reminiscing on old victories.

Young women not mentored
It is strange that the feminists of the 80s and 90s are still speaking for the WM. Ms Ssentamu laments the fact that there has not been a deliberate effort to recruit young women. “There is a generational gap. You find the opinions of the older generation are not representative of the young generation. Maybe this is because the media has always portrayed feminists as angry women, who are anti-men. Not many young girls want to be associated with that image.”
Also, the need to make a living has erased the passion and spontaneity of the WM. Not many young women would willingly work for free. Young women need to be helped to appreciate that when they stand up for another woman, they are protecting themselves.

The way forward
There is an ongoing behind-the-scenes discussion in women’s organisations on where the WM is today and what can be done to restore its vibrancy. Ms Nkutu says what is commonly thought of as the former glory of the WM was not the best.
“We need to recognise the times have changed and take advantage of those changes. For instance, younger women, technology, and online organising. We need to re-politicise gender equality. It has to be something people feel is potent. Gender equality is about power. It should be at the centre of governance. You cannot divorce the two. You cannot pretend that you educate and empower women without speaking about the issues that affect them,” she explains.
There is need for stocktaking, and then, a long-term strategy for recruiting young women and men into the WM needs to be formulated.
Communities in rural areas need to be empowered to take up leadership and question processes at the grassroots level. “The WM is not an NGO thing. It is an ideology. Those women in political spaces today were part of deliberate grooming right from the grassroots. We need to continue building capacity all over the country,” Ms Aciro says.
Also, CSOs, which include women’s organisations – cannot be separated from politics because everything about fighting for women’s rights has always been political.


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