Women in Society
Women's roles were clearly subordinate to those of men, despite the substantial economic and social responsibilities of women in Uganda's many traditional societies. Women were taught to accede to the wishes of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sometimes other men as well, and to demonstrate their subordination to men in most areas of public life. Even in the 1980s, women in rural areas of Buganda were expected to kneel when speaking to a man. At the same time, however, women shouldered the primary responsibilities for childcare and subsistence cultivation, and in the twentieth century, women had made substantial contributions to cash-crop agriculture.
Many men claimed that their society revered women, and it was true that Ugandan women had some traditional rights that exceeded those of women in Western societies. Many Ugandans recognized women as important religious leaders, who sometimes had led religious revolts that overthrew the political order dominated by men. In some areas of Uganda, women could own land, influence crucial political decisions made by men, and cultivate crops for their own profit. But when cash-crop agriculture became lucrative, as in southeastern Uganda in the 1920s, men often claimed rights to land owned by their female relatives, and their claims were supported by local councils and protectorate courts.
Polygynous marriage practices, which permit a man to marry more than one woman, have reinforced some aspects of male dominance, but they also have given women an arena for cooperating to oppose male dominance. Moreover, a man sometimes granted his senior wife "male" status, allowing her to behave as an equal toward men and as a superior toward his other wives. But in the twentieth century, polygynous marriages had created bonds that were not legally recognized as marriage, leaving women without legal rights to inheritance or maintenance in the event of divorce or widowhood.
Women began to organize to exercise their political power before independence. In 1960 the Uganda Council of Women passed a resolution urging that laws regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance should be recorded in written from and publicized nationwide--a first step toward codifying customary and modern practices. During the first decade of independence, this council also pressed for legal reforms that would grant all women the right to own property and retain custody of their children if their marriages ended.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the violence that swept Uganda inflicted a particularly heavy toll on women. Economic hardships were felt first in the home, where women and children lacked economic choices available to most men. Women's work became more time-consuming than it had been; the erosion of public services and infrastructure reduced access to schools, hospitals, and markets. Even traveling to nearby towns was often impossible. Some Ugandan women believed that the war years strengthened their independence, however, as the disruption of normal family life opened new avenues for acquiring economic independence, and government reports suggested that the number of women employed in commerce increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Museveni government of the late 1980s pledged to eliminate discrimination against women in official policy and practice. Women are active in the National Resistance Army (NRA), and Museveni appointed a woman, Joan Kakwenzire, to a six-member commission to document abuses by the military. The government also has decreed that one woman would represent each district on the National Resistance Council (NRC). In addition, the government-operated Uganda Commercial Bank has launched a rural credit plan to make farm loans more easily available to women.
Museveni appointed Joyce Mpanga minister for women and development in 1987, and she proclaimed the government's intention to raise women's wages, increase women's credit and employment opportunities, and improve the lives of women in general. In 1989 there were two women serving as ministers and three serving as deputy ministers in the NRM cabinet. Women civil servants and professionals also formed an organization, Action for Development, to assist women in war-torn areas, especially the devastated Luwero region in central Uganda.
The Uganda Association of Women Lawyers, which was founded in 1976, established a legal-aid clinic in early 1988 to defend women who faced the loss of property or children because of divorce, separation, or widowhood. The association also sought to expand educational opportunities for women, increase childsupport payments (equivalent to US$0.50 per month in 1989) in case of divorce, establish common legal grounds for divorce for both men and women, establish common criminal codes for men and women, assist women and children who were victims of AIDS, and implement nationwide education programs to inform women of their legal rights.
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