Women Matter- Reflections from NW Uganda
Today is International Women’s Day and in light of my past week I feel the need to say a few words. I had almost forgotten that today was International Women’s Day until I drove through the market streets of a town called Kibale in SW Uganda and happened to notice several large banners stretched across the traffic lights, announcing that 'Today we Celebrate Women'. I thought to myself that this was at least a nice gesture, however wondered about the point of waving a banner when just around the next corner was a field full of women plowing the fields. I watched as they labored underneath the African sun, babies strapped to their backs, as the sinewy muscles of their arms contracted under the weight of their machetes and plows.
Today, I had the fortune of venturing out onto the waters of Lake Bunyonyi so as to get a closer glimpse at a handful of the 29 islands which fill the lake basin. One island in particular caught my attention; ‘Punishment island’. As we approached the island, I had to question our boat driver about whether the small area of floating marsh ahead of us was in fact the island in question. It appeared as if it could sink at any moment. While the island may have had a bit more land mass thirty years ago, the fact remains that the mound of floating land is fit only to sustain the birds which inhabit it’s lone tree. In fact, the ground was so unstable that we were unable to dock and disembark. During the reign of Idi Amin in the 70’s, women who became pregnant out of wedlock were dropped off onto this island and were essentially left to die. While some attempted to swim to freedom, the waters are surprisingly cold, plus swimming skills were rare, not to mention that these women were pregnant. Men who came from poor villages and who did not have cows to offer as a bridal price were able to go to the island and take their pick from the remaining women.
As we lingered for a few minutes alongside the island, we jokingly asked our ‘tour guide’ why they didn’t punish the men as well. He laughed, a kind of ‘humoring us type of laugh’, then his face went dead serious and out of his mouth came the words, “It is a woman’s fault if she becomes pregnant, not the man’s. Only she should be punished.” For fear that he could throw us overboard we withheld from saying more but those words have continued to float in and out of my thoughts now 8 hours later.
Women were being abandoned on this island just thirty years ago! And while the practice has since been abandoned, the archaic beliefs behind the mistreatment of women are still prevalent in many areas of the world.
Within the refugee settlement where I have been working for the past week, I am reminded daily about the plight of women in much of the world. Many of the refugees served are from the DRC as conflict in the eastern part of the country continues to boil over. We hear the stories of women who have fled after being raped and tortured, women with stories too unfathomable to recount on this page and then there are the women who continue to experience sexual abuse even after fleeing from their country as often the perpetrators are husbands or other family members who follow them across the border. Many of these women present to the clinic with symptoms and maladies which medicine cannot cure. All over the camp one can find signs written in both Swahili and English depicting the referral pathway for victims of sexual gender based violence, however, just like the International Women’s Day Banner which we drove underneath, I question what services are really available for these women.
Then I visit the family planning clinic and it quickly becomes apparent that only the women are receiving counseling. When I ask the ART (anti retroviral treatment) counselor she laughs and rolls her eyes. “family planning is only for the women!” “just put N/A on all of the men’s forms”. As I attempted to engage her in a longer discussion, trying my best to appear non judgemental, she was called away and that was the end of that.
What is the point to all of this? The point, is that women are courageous, resilient, beautiful, strong and downright incredible. They bring life into the world and yet, most are treated as second class citizens. Women matter!
The second point is that men are equally important. Men must be educated and involved. They cannot be left out of this process. Men matter too! The boat driver, tour guide, clinic social worker, You and I...We all need to be involved in this process. We all need to take responsibility. We each have a part to play.