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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Women

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I’ve been traveling around Uganda and Kenya for a month and a half now, and I would estimate that 98 percent of the people I’ve interviewed so far have been men. I already was sick of it a while ago and now I am really sick of it. I am in Gulu now and I realize that women’s rights are the most important and the most overlooked and underappreciated issue affecting Uganda as a whole, if not, you know, the entire rest of the world.

“Ugandan men are arrogant,” Emma, a young student, told Gary and I at Embassy Bar the other night. I get the impression that “arrogant” is only one of the many of nasty adjectives you could use. Christine Okot, the Ugandan Government’s Gender Officer for Gulu District, recently offered a couple others: “stubborn” and “big-headed.”

I’m not trying to say that all men are bad here, nor am I trying to say that I truly understand the issue – because, of course, I can’t – but it’s become obvious: Women are like mules in Uganda. They are property. “A man has a right over the wife and everything the woman owns in the home,” Okot told Hannah and I yesterday.

Ask any woman here and they will tell you that gender inequality is rife, that domestic violence is normal and, if anything, encouraged. The situation has become so much worse because of the war. LRA rebels used rape as a tool to destroy the lives of Acholi women. And after the Acholi community was crammed into overpopulated, isolated, dirty and dangerous IDP camps, where many people have lived for decades, rape and incest increased and gender roles changed radically.

“All the time you spend roaming around,” said Michael Ojok, a 24-year-old resident of Acet Camp in Gulu District, who has lived there seven years. “You don’t have your garden, you don’t have crops.” Living in the IDP Camps, Ojok and many others have told me, so many men feel helpless and resort to drinking. When they run out of money, they steal bicycles, land, or the food aid distributed to their wives, to drink more. Then they come home and beat their wives.

Meanwhile, the women take care of the children, take care of orphans, collect the seed from the World Food Programme, dig the gardens, grow crops, fetch water from the bore hole, and pretty much do everything else. “All the responsibilities are on the women,” Esther Abwol, a mother who lives in Olwal Camp in Amuru District, told Hannah and I. “It is up to you to struggle and make sure your family is O.K.”

Today, aid workers and camp residents said, now that people are free to return to their villages and tend their crops, the problem is still huge. Just look at all the drunks farting around in the camps on an average weekday. There were plenty at Acet Camp on Tuesday. Even the Local Community Leader of Odek Subcounty was falling-down drunk.

There are a number of aid groups that deal with women’s rights, like Straight Talk and Boy Talk, which holds regular sessions for women and men about sex, health issues and how to stop domestic violence at home. Christine Okot, the Gender Officer, runs working groups that network with state institutions and aid groups to promote gender equality in development programs.

But Okot said that too many aid organizations here fail to address the underlying causes of gender inequality, domestic violence, rape and the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is intimately connected to these problems. “They tackle the symptoms,” she said. “They think that drinking is the problem.”

Women here, working women, students, aid workers and government officials alike, say that the true problem lies with culture and tradition. Girls just getting into maturity have been pushed into marriage. Women can’t leave the house, even to go to the hospital, without asking their husband’s permission. If women are raped, they are often blamed for it themselves. Some women worry that they are not good enough wives if their husbands don’t beat them.

It’s a matrix of issues – political, cultural, economic, psychological. How do you find a solution? Women here say that men need to be more deeply involved in promoting gender equality. And ultimately, the next generation of leaders need to be educated about gender equality and human rights. “Your children are still young,” Okot tells the women of the community. “Train the young people.”

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Written by Peter Holslin

July 10, 2008 at 9:34 am

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