Namata Tendo, 26, refuses to watch any more girls married off early in rural western Uganda. In a community where women often have to travel up to 60 miles to seek justice for gender-based violence, Namata has introduced Village Gender Teams – collective groups of parents, teachers and students who are educating their communities on gender equality and helping facilitate the reporting of violence.
Ahead of the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, read how Namata’s ICV Alumni Grant-funded project is making life better for women.
I work in a place called Kibaale East in Kamwenge, western Uganda.
In Uganda, girls often drop out of school because they’re being married off by their parents. Recent VSO research revealed more than one in three girls drop out of school because of early marriage, while a quarter drop our due to pregnancy. The statistics are alarming, and so this year I decided to start a project returning girls to school.
The rural communities here lack the informal and formal support structures that enable girls and women to cope with the effects of early marriage and gender-based violence (GBV).
My village gender workforce
It wasn’t like there was a lack of interventions by local NGOs. But the focus had always been on empowering girls and women – while forgetting the need to empower the people around them. Women can create change, I don’t doubt that, but it can only happen in an environment that supports them. I wanted to show communities that empowering women benefits everyone.
I put together a proposal for Embibo Gender Initiative, a project returning girls to school funded through the ICV Alumni Grant. Reflecting on how communities self-organised, I realised that water committees that already existed – a group of people helping maintain water resources in the village – were working well. They even had strong mechanisms for accountability, with members refusing to do their bit could even be arrested.
Using a similar structure modelled on these, I established two Village Gender Teams – collectives of 10 community members that included teachers, parents and students. They were trained on gender equality and how to report cases of gender-based violence and then left to do their work.
Justice costs money
Where I work, the community respects local elders more than the constitution or the police. Although the majority of GBV violations are criminal cases that deserve punishment under the law, even the act of bringing these cases to court is a challenge for women.
The three sub-counties I work in have just one magistrates court, which is 35-60 miles away and costs 30,000 Ugandan shillings (£6) for a one-way journey. It’s unaffordable and inconvenient and the consequence is that the community reports violence to male-majority traditional courts.
Through the Village Gender Teams, community members who are able to recognise GBV and are trained in how to report cases of sexual abuse to police, are able to make fast referrals in a way that wasn’t available before. While I can’t be everywhere, they can. And in a community that’s sensitised to gender equality, women have greater chances of settling GBV cases fairly and locally.
I’ve also been forced to rethink how I regard justice. If you’re a young girl here and you’re abused, you’re then forced to marry your abuser for the sake of family honour. Once you’re married, you’ll fall pregnant and end up forced out of education. For the girls I speak with, getting justice doesn’t mean their abuser being arrested. Justice to them is returning to school and having a future.
We’ve seen schools lobby for more
Involving teachers in the project has enabled them to discuss issues honestly, to be able to accurately report back on progress. We have two schools implementing the work well – but the real moment of progress was when they lobbied local government and NGOs for extra things like toilets. To see that they think those issues are important is great.
We also asked teachers to create actions of their own both inside and outside class so they can use the knowledge we’ve given them. One school chose to do a gender day, during which they critically looked at who does work in the home, while another started a child protection club to create a friendly environment where children can speak about personal issues.
And currently 13 ten-year-old girls are back in school thanks to the campaign. For those girls aged 14-24 who’ve been forced to drop out, I’m running financial literacy training linked to gender issues so they can be supported with businesses they’ve started.
One girl that’s stood out to me through the project is called Patience. A daughter of a single mother, she’s been forced to take up the traditionally male roles in life – rearing cattle, staying in education and the other chores that are normally reserved for men – and it’s meant she’s a great leader. She’s head prefect of the school and has actively led the sensitisation meetings – very unusual for a girl.
Ending GBV means treating women as humans
Embibo is now a registered community-based organisation (CBO) and we have big plans. I want to bring women in rural areas involved in policy at their level to understand how Uganda’s laws can protect them. And I want to develop the business arm of the organisation to support women who’ve been forced to drop out of education to sell the products that they’re making.
Ending GBV to me means treating women as humans. If men can recognise their humanity and dignity we can end this practice. This begins with education. If you read our country’s framework, you’d think you’re reading the Bible. I want to see progressive laws but also our education system change not to make women better wives – but empower them as leaders.