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16. May 2019

Uganda: Traditional ideas of gender are questioned

An invitation from the women’s rights organisation MEMPROW in northern Uganda is an invitation to re-think long-held beliefs – even for respected community authority figures. The local chiefs often have very traditional ideas of gender: many think that the needs of men have priority over women and girls. MEMPROW asks them to question this way of thinking and campaigns for a change of attitudes throughout society.

"If a woman earns her own money, this causes conflicts within her family." The assembled men are asked to position themselves in the room according to their views on this statement. They would usually be in full agreement on an issue such as this, but something has changed during the past few hours. Some of the men are discussing quietly and have become noticeably hesitant. Finally, a small group of men find the courage to stand under the sign "I disagree".

Provocative questions to powerful men - changing social attitudes

This training course is a very special one. The feminist organisation  MEMPROW, a partner organisation of medica mondiale, has brought together 20 chiefs from the north-west of Uganda. Answering directly to the king, these chiefs enjoy a high rank in their society, with their attitudes and decisions impacting upon life in their communities. So in addition to its work with women and girls, MEMPROW has made the very conscious decision to work with them. They are convinced that long-term changes cannot succeed unless social attitudes change.

Working with the chiefs requires a high degree of sensitivity. Hilda Tadria, the director of MEMPROW, manages to walk the tightrope between respect and provocation. She succeeds in gaining the chiefs’ appreciation of her intentions and gives them some very difficult things to think about during the training course.

Enabling self-determination for women and girls

MEMPROW has been working for more than 10 years in northern Uganda. One of its main focal areas is the provision of training courses for underage mothers. Early pregnancies and weddings are commonly a consequence of despair and a lack of other opportunities for the future. "Even as a child I had to work hard. Nobody looked after me. When I was 14, my parents decided to stop paying my school money," explains Doreen, one of the participants in the training course. "What else could I do? I decided to find a man and get pregnant by him. But then he began to beat me."

In order to offer the girls a way out of the spiral of poverty and violence, in the training courses MEMPROW shows them they have other potential futures. The girls learn that they have rights and how they can assert them. They receive information on bringing up children and family planning. They also practice in small groups how to put money aside to invest in their future. These empowering workshops from MEMPROW cannot be run without the support of local authority figures. Only then can the organisation succeed in speaking directly to the girls and gain community support for their training courses with women and girls.

Questioning traditional roles of man and woman

As the training course progresses, the chiefs are becoming visibly more animated. “Men are the natural leaders.” Hilda reads out the statement and asks the men to take their position. Now there are already more men who do not agree. One man tells the others how there were two queens during the history of their kingdom. So Hilda asks why there are now only male chiefs. Some men offer an explanation, but others protest. One thing is clear: this is only the beginning of the discussion.

Author: Esther Wahlen, Press and Public Relatitions Officer at medica mondiale

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