Over the past decade, global emphasis on human rights and gender equality has grown considerably across the socio-political realm. Even the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN-backed successor to the Millennium Development Goals, lists gender equality as the fifth of seventeen global goals. The first four SDGs address the issues of poverty, hunger, health, and education; but the thing about gender inequality is that it doesn’t exist as a stand-alone issue.
THE REALITY OF GENDER INEQUALITY
The reality of gender inequality, and especially gender-based violence, is that it’s as complex and multifaceted as it is heart-breaking. The myriad challenges to gender equality range from explicit structural failings, such as ineffective law enforcement, to implicit social and cultural barriers. In Uganda, there are a number of cultural practices that perpetuate inequality between men and women yet continue to be practiced today. This intersection of tradition and inequality creates a thorny route to lasting socio-political change; how can we make gender equality a reality in Uganda when certain aspects of the local culture enforce the contrary?
The most glaring examples of discriminatory cultural practices include female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, wherein girls and young women are subjected to physical and emotional abuses committed by adult men and women in their communities. Elders especially play a strong role in initiating FGM as a horrific rite of passage. Another common practice throughout Uganda is ‘pulling,’ which describes the process of pulling a girl’s labia to stretch it. As they begin puberty, girls are told by older female family members that pulling will make them better prepared for marriage and more sexually desirable overall. Although this practice is far less violent than that of female genital mutilation, the fact remains that there exists an inequality between girls and boys in that boys aren’t required to modify or mutilate their bodies.
MARRIAGE CONTRIBUTES IMMENSELY TO GENDER INEQUALITIES
Both FGM and pulling are customarily justified as preparations for womanhood and marriage, but the unfair treatment doesn’t end once a young woman is married. In fact, marriage contributes immensely to gender inequalities in Uganda. As is the case in many countries throughout Africa and Asia, dowry has persisted as a widespread practice. Dowry can take a varied number of forms across cultures, but in Uganda it involves the exchange of cows for a wife. When a man is able to provide ten or fifteen (or more!) cows to the bride’s family, it’s considered proof that he will be able to support his wife and their future family. Not only does this practice place a considerable amount of pressure on young men to dedicate their savings to the purchase of cows, but it also reinforces a transactional connotation to marriage – and specifically the idea that girls and women can be equated to livestock.
Although dowry is occasionally termed a token of appreciation, as opposed to a transaction, the exchange entails two implications: first, that women feel unfree to leave their husbands as they know their families will lose the much-needed livestock, and second, that families in need of cows will often arrange for their child daughters to be married simply for the income. Child marriage is a prevalent occurrence throughout Uganda and especially in rural communities. It’s not uncommon that parents or guardians will choose to collect dowry rather than to continue paying their daughter’s school fees – especially given that a younger bride incurs a higher price to the husband. As well, parents living in poverty may believe that marriage holds greater and more immediate potential for their daughter’s financial security compared to completing secondary and post-secondary schooling. The unfortunate reality is that 1 in every 10 girls in Uganda are married before the age of 15, and nearly 1 in every 2 is married before 18.
WOMEN ARE STILL TREATED AS SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS
In adulthood, women are still treated as second-class citizens both in the public and private spheres. Traditionally, house work is extremely gendered; wives are expected to care for the children, prepare meals, wash laundry, clean the house, tend to crops and even work outside of the home for additional income. Meanwhile, men aren’t expected to take nearly as much responsibility for their children, yet they’re considered the primary financial providers and heads of the household. In other words, women are over-worked and under-appreciated. This reality is especially reflected in the fact that equal land ownership still doesn’t exist in Uganda. To this day, women cannot inherit any land owned by their late fathers, brothers, or husbands. When a man passes away, his property is inherited by his son or another chosen male family member – but never his wife. This inhumane policy, enforced by cultural views, poses a significant challenge to female widows and single mothers as they can find themselves unexpectedly homeless in the wake of their husband’s passing.
These examples of culturally-enforced practices and policies can help to explain why and how gender inequality exists in the form that it does in Uganda. That being said, it’s important to recognize that no single culture is more or less conducive to inequality than another. One hundred years ago, several societies throughout the world were considerably less liberal than they are today. Change is happening at varied rates and to varied degrees across the globe and as necessary as it is to identify cultural practices that perpetuate gender inequality, it’s equally significant to dig deeper – to isolate the underlying actors in such practices, like poverty. The challenge for social justice organizations, including Uganda For Her, lies in working to amend discriminatory cultural practices without conveying the idea that local traditions and cultures, which have already survived centuries of external impact and colonial influence, are wrong or immoral. Having knowledge of these practices can help an organization or individual bring sustainable change to their community because it leads to an enriched understanding of the explicit and implicit structures that give shape to social norms. When we begin to question the aspects of our culture that aren’t favourable to equality, like media that objectifies women or marriage norms that enforce gender roles, we can enrich traditions by transforming them into practices that benefit everyone rather than accessories to inequality.