It is hot in Awei, Alebtong District in Northern Uganda, a region that not long ago was the epicenter of the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. Today, surprisingly, it is still dry season, as the rain has been late to arrive. Luckily, however, we are seated in the shadow of a big mango tree, protecting us from the burning hot sun. Slowly the plastic chairs around me are getting filled and people are happily chatting with each other. Some are dancing to music. Everyone is excited, waiting for the event to start.
Many achievements and many challenges ahead
It’s March 25th, and the annual district celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8th) is taking place at Tee Ongora (under the Ongora Tree) Primary School. All over the world, women are still struggling for equality in a traditionally man-dominated world, facing different challenges from unequal payment, disadvantages of work opportunities, and the expectation that one must take on traditional roles in society, all of which make it increasingly difficult for women to make decisions that affect their own livelihoods. This day’s celebration outlines various achievements of the last year and raises awareness regarding empowerment for women in all areas of development. Furthermore, as the chairwoman of the event states, it encourages everyone to “reflect on women’s challenges that still hinder women accessing economic, social and political institutions and lays strategies for further action.” She continues:
Uganda chose today’s motto: Empowerment of women and girls is progress for all: Three decades of Gains for Ugandan women and girls to demonstrate that a whole nation can benefit from the empowerment of women.
By giving women a voice in the community, it provides them with lifelong skills and it will enable their children to slowly build up an empowered, equal society.
“Oh Uganda! The land of freedom“. The national anthem is played by the school’s orchestra and sounds over the festival ground. By now, over 300 visitors have arrived to be part of the festival. The celebration is now in full swing and local politicians are confidently presenting their speeches. Facts about achievements made in Uganda concerning women empowerment are stated. For example, the representative of the district women’s council explains that “empowerment of women is greatly protected within the laws and policies of Uganda.” Key frameworks for empowerment, written down in the constitution like the Uganda gender policies, have provided women in the country opportunities to progress in all aspects of life. In fact, changes of women employment in man-dominated areas like ministries in the government has highly increased in Uganda in the last years (2001: 14,9%; 2011: 34,4%).
The number of women in the national cabinets rose to now 28%.
Moreover, more women than ever are nowadays employed in the armed forces like police, army, prisons and other security agencies.
„Invest in Girls!“ – Women still face inequality
And then the parade begins. The orchestra is playing and students, especially girls from school clubs from different primary and secondary schools, as well as representativse of women groups and vocational schools, start marching, advocating girls’ rights by presenting handwritten signposts. „Hear Our Voices! Support us to realize our potential!”, shouts one girl, supporting the statement written on her sign post and proud to be heard by high district representatives.
Despite the fact that women empowerment is becoming increasingly common, women and girls are still struggling, especially in rural areas. The gap between governmental policies and common (traditional) practices in rural areas still exists. Another girl is passing, showing her signpost: Speak Up! Prevent Violence Against Girls. Young girls are still suffering from early marriages, female circumcision, household violence, ignorance of sexuality that often leads to early pregnancies and HIV/AIDS infections or lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene management, one of the most common reasons for girls to drop out of school.
The leader of a women group in Awei explains these challenges to me. Moreover, she is pointing at another sign post: Invest in Girls’ Education! “This is still a very important issue!”
Even though the number of girls enrolled in primary education institutions has increased, many parents are still favoring boys to access education. Girls are helping with keeping up the household, cooking, farming and taking care of younger siblings.
Like her, a lot of women come together, forming small saving groups, since local traditions often forbid women to handle money, to own property or to inherit. Male relatives are taking over, handling women’s money, which often results “in wasting money by buying local brewed beers, since alcoholism is not that unusual. We have a high unemployment rate here.”, the woman seated next to me explains. Women groups are encouraging each other to speak up, gain life skills, share challenges and some of them go out to reach the community with music, dance and drama performances to raise awareness about women’s and girls’ rights.
It’s a joint struggle and everyone must play their part.
That is the conclusion of another chairwoman of a local women’s group in her speech, directing a demand for focused actions about women empowerment to the district politicians.
The weather is changing. From one second to another, huge dark clouds are rising and the wind is blowing. The rainy season is finally arriving, and it soon begins to downpour heavily. Everyone flees in the nearby school buildings, I found myself in the classroom of P5. Happy for the rain to come, no one is stressed or sad that the event found its quick ending. Far from it! – Dancing and singing, the celebration is continuing inside. I am totally amazed by these inspiring girls and women who shortly ago had to suffer from the LRA insurgency, losing relatives and friends, living and growing up in refugees camps, losing all they have had and experienced extreme poverty. And now, here they are: Brave enough to speak up, breaking traditional settings, fighting for a better life. I’m watching their performance, reading their signpost, I totally agree: Women and Girls Can!