Unite, defend, resist: rural women standing up for their rights in Uganda

Lee Webster | Mar 08, 2018
Women activists standing against forced evictions in rural Uganda, supporter by Womankind partner, NAWAD

Today, 8th March, is International Women’s Day: a day to honour, celebrate and raise the voices of women activists, and to demand, once again, urgent action on women’s rights.

Yet the struggle for a world where women’s rights are respected, valued and realised cannot be confined to one day. It is a struggle that continues day in and day out.  It is long, it is arduous, there are victories and there are setbacks. It is a journey fuelled by feminist passion and rising from the personal experiences of violence and discrimination faced by many women. It is hard work. Most of that hard work is carried out by women you probably haven’t heard of – women coming together in their local communities to stop violence, to make sure their voices are heard, and to change the attitudes and behaviours that drive gender inequality.

This International Women’s Day, we honour those millions of women who are doing the hard work, often unseen.

A new women’s movement in Uganda is rising

In Uganda a growing movement of rural women are coming together to take a stand against land grabs that have seen them lose their homes and livelihoods. Right now in Uganda, powerful corporations, supported by the government, are digging for oil, planting large scale crops like sugar cane, and setting up new factories. They are doing this on the land that’s lived on and used by local people to grow food for their families.

Women do most of the growing of food and looking after animals, as they are mainly responsible for putting food on the table. Yet when it comes to decisions about the future of the land, it is men’s voices that are heard.

Women and their families are being forced from their homes – often violently – and losing their livelihoods to make way for big farms and oil plants. As Margaret, a research participant from Hoima explained:

“What hurts me the most is that I am a Ugandan, living on Ugandan land but I am now a squatter and me and my children are left here. My children aren’t going to school as I can’t afford to pay for the fees. I have to walk for at least three miles in the hot sun to get to some paid work just so I can feed my family. I have not been able to feed them well – we eat one meal a day and what I cook has to last us for two days.”

A powerful new movement of women is rising

In the face of eviction and displacement, a new movement of rural women have come together. They are standing up to big businesses, and calling for women’s voices to be heard in all decisions about the future of their homes and land. With over 1,500 women joining the movement in its first year (and growing!), women are finding support and solidarity by coming together to protect their livelihoods.

As Elizabeth, a women’s rights activist in Hoima explains, women’s movements build strength and unity:

“Women are coming together, and this helps us be strong. We are now being listened to by men and there is less violence in the camp. Things have to change. We cannot and will not go on like this. As women, we are coming together to change our lives.”

Through participatory feminist research, Womankind has supported the movement to document their experiences of forced evictions and human rights abuses. Our new report, Digging Deep, launched to mark International Women’s Day, is a powerful call to action to the international community.

Digging deep: new research on women’s resistance to land grabs

Womankind has worked with the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) and the National Association for Women’s Action in Development (NAWAD) to document issues affecting women and their land in Uganda, and to insist that the world listens to rural women’s voices. 

Using feminist participatory research, NAWAD and NAPE trained 35 rural women in research methods, who in turn interviewed over 350 women in five areas affected by oil plants and industrial activity in Uganda. The results are shocking. Women report being violently evicted from their homes and land to make way for oil plants and factories, with their voices being silenced in any negotiations about compensation or resettlement. Women have lost their livelihoods – they can no longer grow crops or tend to animals which provided food for their families. On top of losing their land, women are experiencing sexual and physical violence whilst being evicted, and by men coming to work in the new industrial plants.

Women’s demands are loud and clear

As part of the research project, in workshops and discussions in villages across the districts affected by land grabs, women came together to strategise and formulate a response. As Patience, a rural woman activist, explains, “When women come together, we get the strength to speak out and get our voices heard.”

The women being evicted and displaced by the land rush are clear about what needs to happen for their rights to be respected:

  1. Women’s voices must be heard in every stage of decision making on land;
  2. Corporations need to fulfil their obligations to the human rights of women and local communities;
  3. Compensation for all lost land must be fair, transparent and equal, and women must be compensated directly;
  4. All forms of violence against women and girls must stop immediately.

From the local to the global

These women fiercely advocating for their rights in Uganda represent but a handful of powerful women across the world who are fighting every single day. From Kenyan lawyers determined to combat gender-based violence, to Dalit women fighting against discrimination in the political arena, to the thousands of UK women who joined #March4Women last weekend, women across the globe have said enough is enough.

This International Women’s Day – and every day – we stand with women in rural Uganda, who are fighting for their rights. As we launch the report with them, we call on governments, corporations and the international community to listen to the voices of women. Share the report; join the movement.

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