Perspective

The struggle for gender justice in Uganda

There are different critical junctures in Uganda’s history from which debates on gender justice, equality and women’s rights can be traced. One of these significant moments is the “guerrilla bush war” led by Yoweri Museveni between 1981-85. Many women participated in this war on different fronts which ultimately brought about a new regime in 1986.

Inspired by women’s participation in the liberation war and international norms towards women’s rights, the post-war programming introduced practical steps towards promoting gender equality. These included creating “mandatory seats for women in all levels of the grassroots people’s resistance councils and the National Legislative Council (NRC) – the interim national legislature” in 1989, creating a ministry responsible for women’s affairs among other pro-women rights initiative. Feminist scholars argue that “women [often gain] greater visibility during and after war because institutional changes open up opportunities for them to demand women’s rights’ and representation in the context of peace talks, constitutional changes, truth and reconciliation processes and electoral reforms, …”

Institutional changes open up opportunities … to demand women’s rights’ and representation in the context of peace talks, constitutional changes, truth and reconciliation processes and electoral reforms,”

Post-war recovery ushered in a new political dispensation and opened avenues for gender equity reforms e.g. constitutional reforms of 1989-1995 in which women activists and women’s rights organisations (WROs) participated in, a new gender sensitive constitution, resurgence of autonomous WROs. The 1995 constitution particularly named women as citizens of an equal worth with men. The constitution committed the state to protect women and their rights, provided affirmative action measures in favour groups marginalised on the basis of gender, age, disability, and prohibited laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status.

Covert resistance to implementing gender equality

While, these permissive moments created a greater momentum and a sense of optimism in promotion of gender justice, equality and women’s rights, the institutionalisation of gender equality generated diverse forms of resistance especially as WROs moved to translate constitutional promises into reality.

Three years after a gender sensitive constitution came into effect; the WROs registered a loss in pursuit of what came to be known as the Spousal Co-ownership “lost clause” within the 1998 Land Act. Miriam Matembe a women’s rights activist and legislator, who spearheaded mobilisation for the reform calling for wives to co-own property with their husbands – described the loss as “a moment of truth”. This is because women’s lobby realised that the great optimism derived from the formal constitution was not enough to deliver such a far-reaching gender equity change as women co-owning land with their spouses in a marriage arrangement. The experience revealed a systematic bureaucratic resistance to the translation of the constitutional provisions on women’s rights into action.

These covert forms of state resistance influenced future WROs ways of mobilising for gender change. Ten years after the lost clause, WROs drew on formal and informal networks, formed coalitions with government departments, male legislators, religious leaders and traditional leaders to promote a law on domestic violence out of the long-resisted Domestic Relations bill. Drawing on the experiences of backlash from the past, WROs mapped existing forms of resistance to gender equality and negotiated directly with key actors to enable passage of reforms.

We are looking to understand which WROs strategic manoeuvres led to the framing and passage of Domestic Violence Bill (2009) along with the prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation in 2009. We are also focusing on a class-related policy – Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP) – government – top-down programme. UWEP was introduced in 2015 under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to strengthen the capacity of Women entrepreneurs, provide affordable credit to women groups for enterprise development and spur local economic development.

Contemporary backlashes

A closer analysis of these cases reveals differences in interests and ideas that motivated these policy reforms, as well as varying forms of backlash against them. Notably, strategic negotiations in framing, debates, passage and implementation of gender equality and women’s rights reforms are not without effect. Certain compromises in law reform processes are seen to water down some of the feminist provisions, as actors struggle to make laws “acceptable” to opposition e.g. men, powerful political elites, traditional and religious leaders. A case in point is the fact that the Domestic Violence bill was stripped of provisions on marital rape. There are cases of active stalling of gender reforms, with some reform programmes featuring as government’s unfunded priorities.

In communities where reforms impact on men and women’s everyday lives, there are social tensions emerging from disrupted gender division of labour e.g. in cases where women entrepreneur groups are seen as a threat to men’s social and economic power in households. Other backlashes manifest in form of what Sylvia Tamale has characterised as the conceptual dilemma in feminist conversations that constructs ‘rights’ and ‘culture’ as opposed to each other.

Tamale argues, “[m]ainstream feminists often present the two concepts of “culture” and “rights” as distinct, invariably opposed and antagonistic. Citing the passage of the FGM law, Tamale argues that when government attempted to outlaw the practice, omitting possibilities to harness positive cultural attributes, it created a severe backlash by pushing it underground with vigilante groups consisting of youthful males hunting down “defectors” and forcibly subjecting them to the knife.

These backlashes (and perhaps many other forms) are often exacerbated by neoliberal and neo-conservative politics with a strong emphasis on individual rights, and privileging economic gains, which, in some cases influences the nature of WROs. Some WROs are motivated by personal economic gains rather than transforming societies experiencing gender inequalities. Coupled with increasing government tight control of nongovernmental organisations work, these global and national contexts continue to depoliticise the women’s movement. We are here to reclaim gender justice.