Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Women’s Day in Uganda

Monday March 9th was International Women’s Day. Julius and I celebrated it by running a sanitation workshop in Nabitovu Village. Twenty-eight village leaders attended the workshop, mostly Village Health Team (VHT) members and political leaders.

Nabitovu’s Village Health Team is, fittingly enough, run by a woman called Mbasaliki Monica. Mbasaliki is our most active VHT Chair, and because of her the team is probably our most effective VHT team. Even before we planned our current Sanitation Campaigns, Mbasaliki had organized groups of VHT members and political leaders to go around the village checking households for latrines, and educating families about the importance of latrines and sanitation.

Also, almost half the members of the Nabitovu Village Heath Team are women, and I notice increasingly that, during VHT meetings, women speak up almost as much as men. This is rare in Uganda – go to most village meetings and you’ll quickly notice that the women (who sit on mats), barely voice a word of opinion, while the men (who sit on chairs), dominate every discussion.

Then again, the maternal mortality rate in Uganda is still around 550 out of 100,000 live births. For comparison’s sake, the rate is 11 and 8 out of  10,000 in the US and in Sweden, respectively.  This means that 1 in 25 Ugandan women will die of pregnancy-related causes, while only 4800 will do so in the United States.  Uganda has one of the highest rates of Obstetric Fistula in the world, a painful and physically isolating condition caused by prolonged, obstructed labor. In developed countries, obstetric fistula is unheard of – only in the poorest countries are maternal care standards low enough for such a horrific condition to become prevalent.

Gender roles are incredibly stringent in Uganda (and across Sub-Saharan Africa in general). Women are expected to work in the garden, fetch water, cook all meals, keep the compound clean, wash clothes for half a dozen people or more by hand, look after the kids and tend sick family members, and so on. They also have virtually no say in the allocation of family resources – men are perfectly free to spend the proceeds of their wife’s labor drinking, no matter how badly the household may be lacking food, soap, or school tuition money.

Women have arguably benefited under President Museveni. Now, a set number of women must be Members of Parliament. Every village has an elected women’s leader. Universal primary education, and recently universal education up to senior four (grade 10), has certainly boosted female school attendance.

However, many Ugandans believe that “universal education,” poorly funded as it is, has caused educations standards to sink dramatically, and has thus done more harm that good for the country.

One of the saddest facts of female life in Uganda is the prevalence of domestic abuse. Beating one’s wife is frowned upon in most Ugandan cultures, in the same way that being publicly drunk is frowned upon. That is to say, it is unfortunate, and a bit embarrassing, but nothing that can’t be easily overlooked if a man is respectable and hard working in the other areas of his life. I would guess – and I may be wrong here – that it is the very rare wife indeed who has never once suffered the back of her husbands hand, and many women suffer frequent and brutal beatings.

I was reminded of this fact on Women’s Day in Nabitovu, as I sat around with a few Village Health Team members waiting for the workshop to begin. They were handing around a few photographs, shaking the heads and clucking their tongues in deeply disapproving manner. I leaned over to ask what they were looking at. They showed me. In the photographs, all of them, lay a dead woman, tossed into a thicket of grass by the side of a road. The woman looked to have been about 28 or 30, but was so bruised, cut, and blood-stained that it was hard to tell.

She was a villager from Nabitovu, the team told me, beaten to death by her husband four months prior. “Was the man now in jail?” “Yes.” “The poor, poor woman.” “Yes.”

They continued to look over the photographs, shaking their heads and murmuring in Lusoga. I turned my head to avoid accidently glancing at the photographs again. After a few minutes the owner of the photographs gathered them up and put them away, and as the last one was placed out of sight one of the women clapped her hands together, in a typical Ugandan gesture of disgust. “Aah,” she proclaimed, perhaps to me, or perhaps to the group at large. “Domestic violence, you see? That is the life of a woman in Uganda.”

No comments: