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Privileged Ugandan woman speaks from the heart ----- By Jane Nannono

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Privileged Ugandan woman speaks from the heart -----                       By Jane Nannono

The earliest Women’s day was first observed in New York in February 1909. On March 8th 1917 a demonstration of women working in the textile factories in the then Russian Empire, sparked off the Russian Revolution. A week later, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated and the women won themselves the right to vote.

The United Nations adopted March the 8th as International Women’s day in 1975 and a whole decade was dedicated to improving the status of women. It is a day to recognise the women and girls’ ‘contribution towards the development and progress of Society, to affirm their significance in society and to draw attention to the plight of disadvantaged women wherever they are. By virtue of their history, the people of South Africa have their National Women’s Day on the 9th August.

The women in Uganda first celebrated this day in1984 and, since July 1985, we have been singing the Uganda Women’s national anthem, composed by the late Professor Rose Mbowa of the then Makerere Department of Music, Dance and Drama.  Since then, we have made some gains that need to be consolidated but still much more remains to be done.

Access to quality education has opened many possibilities to us. Many have become doctors, engineers, professors, politicians, businesswomen, pilots, and many other professions traditionally considered to be men’s jobs. Name it, a woman of our time can be it. Last week, I was thrilled to learn that there are 29 women judges in Uganda, making up 40.3% of the total. This is no mean achievement at all. At the same time, my mind was unsettled when I remembered that more than 70% of Ugandan women live in the rural areas with their families, depending on subsistence farming, tilling land that they have no hope of owning in their names.

 They have little or no education, they can only afford to send their children to the free Universal Primary Education (UPE) schools. Reports have already confirmed that for every one hundred pupils who enroll in primary one in UPE schools, only 30% complete primary seven to join the free Universal Secondary Education (USE) schools. These rural women are generally in poor health, are cash-strapped but are busy losing themselves in meeting the needs of others. A lot has changed for the women in Uganda since 1985 but many things have remained the same for the women in the rural areas.

To understand where we are now, one has to go back to where it started. We live in a patriarchal society – where men lead and women follow and all our cultures have specific gender roles. Women are the primary care givers – taking care of their children, their husbands, the sick and the elderly. They feed and sustain others. Many of them are always ready to sacrifice for their children. Their efforts are taken for granted. They are consumed by their role of care giving and lose themselves in the process.

When Gayaza High School was founded by the Church Missionary Society of England in 1905, it was started with the purpose of training daughters of the Kabaka’s (King’s) chiefs and royals, and prepare them to marry the sons of the chiefs and royals. The young men had been given formal education in preparation for them to take up jobs in the public service. The schools had been founded on a strong Christian foundation. The founders believed that if these young Christian men married young Christian women, they would bring up children in the faith and Christianity would continue to grow.

When the Irish Catholic nun, Mother Mary Kevin Kearney of the Franciscan Sisters for Africa, founded Namagunga Primary Boarding School in February 1942, she wanted to empower women and girls to live better lives. At the same time, she knew that in any family, it is the mother who nurtures, guides and teaches the children and prepares them for adulthood. Children spend their formative years under the influence of the mother. If these Catholic women married the young men from the already-founded Catholic schools like Namilyango College and Saint Mary’s College, Kisubi, together they would bring up strong Catholic children thus building a just and open Christian Community.

 I would say that both the Church Missionary Society and Mother Kevin were promoting the spread of Christianity through the girl-child. They knew for sure that when you educate a man, you educate an individual but when you educate a woman, you educate a nation. Mothers are the primary caregiver for all children and they are the first line of attachment and bonding.

Later, when the Ugandan women doctors founded the Association of Uganda Women Medical Doctors in 1987, we based our logo on the same principle. We chose: A Healthy woman, a Healthy Nation. We believe that if the woman- the primary caregiver in each family or home - is healthy, then members of her family will be healthy and the whole nation will be healthy too.

After the July 1985 End the Women’s Decade Conference in Nairobi, the women who represented Uganda at the conference took it upon themselves to lobby the government of the time to come out with policies that would empower women to actively participate in the development of Uganda. Thus by 1990, each of the 39 districts of Uganda had one woman representative in parliament and since then the number has grown to 112, one for each of the 112 current districts in the country.

Affirmative action at government universities followed so as to increase the number of women accessing university education. Young women were given an extra 1.5 points above their male contestants. It worked wonders, increasing female enrollment at government universities from 19 percent in the early nineties to the current 48 percent. This has translated in increased number of women in public offices and in prominent roles in society.

In the 2016 general elections, 18 women were elected directly to parliament after defeating the male contestants. If the economic empowerment of all women is focused on, more women will be directly elected to Parliament. Running for a political office has become an incredibly expensive venture in Uganda.

To ensure that Women’s day celebrations do not become a symbol other than a practice for the majority of women- the 70 percent plus living in the rural areas - these women have to be brought into the mainstream of things. The traditional gender roles in society are still shackling them. The men are yet to accept that women can lead in some areas while they follow. These women spend most of their productive life delivering and bringing up children. On average, such a woman delivers close to 7 children in her reproductive life compared to the 1-3 children for the elites in Kampala.

The policies to empower these women through education and economic independence may be there but will remain on paper if we do not come up with ways for their men to support them. The rural women should be supported in accessing the available resources in their communities, supported to own the land they till where it is possible, supported to produce more and to find markets for their produce.

As a health worker, I feel that what these women need most is to be helped to take good care of themselves before they care for others. They need functional health care clinics and hospitals near where they live, places where they can be treated free, where their children other family members can be immunized and treated for common conditions, where they can access modern contraception methods, screened for preventable common cancers and given relevant advice about their nutrition and that of their children.

As long as 16 women still die in child birth every day in Uganda, it is as if the hand that gives them is the same hand that takes it away. Fighting for women’s rights is an ongoing battle. Women first voted in USA in 1920 while those in United Kingdom first voted in 1928. Yet they are still fighting to win more rights, especially increased representation of women in public offices and top decision making positions. Britain had its first woman Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, from 1979-1990. New barriers keep cropping up as compared to us who are still dogged with patriarchal societies and cultural attitudes about gender roles. Women representation in almost all spheres of influence went up in the 1990s and then slowed down. It still remains below 40 percent in both countries. It is highest in the UK at 32 percent.

So now the women have to had to stock the fire aggressively. They are lobbying for a 50/50 gender split in both the public and private sectors. For us the women in Africa, this serves to warn us that bigger challenges lie ahead in our struggle. On the African continent, one women’s organisation in Sierra Leone is pushing for a 50/50 gender split in public offices, politics and sports.

I for one would rather see the maternal mortality and child mortality reduced to the minimum and promote and provide quality care to all Ugandans before pushing for the 50/50 gender split. For I know for sure that your health is your wealth. The current phase of adding economic empowerment on education empowerment is the toughest and requires us to be in top shape to participate fully.  I think that we should not take on new projects until we take steps to care for what we have created.

Of course, each new generation will have its own barriers to progress as far as women’s rights are concerned. This is a women’s war along with their supportive male associates. Those who have benefitted from this system have the great responsibility of lifting up the emerging ones.

When all is said and done, women should work hard to support one another from top to bottom and from bottom up while recruiting any man willing to support us genuinely and unconditionally. Collective and coordinated efforts will open more doors to us. There is safety in numbers and anything is possible. The simple women textile workers of Russia brought the Tsar Nicholas II down.

Failing to honour this, Women’s day will become a day of parades and speeches or simply an ordinary public holiday where you stay home to catch up on what needs to be done in the home.

Last but not least, I take off my hat to the women trail blazers like the Emeritus Professor Josephine Nambooze, Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro, Florence Lubega, Proscovia Lwanga- Njuki, the ate Tereza Nanziri and a few others who dared to swim in uncharted waters without leaning on ‘affirmative action’. They toughed it out with their fellow men. These are the true heroines of the struggle.

The other group of great heroes of this struggle are the men, young or old, who have willingly chosen to fight alongside us as we claim our rights. The women’s struggle continues.

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