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Uganda signs Maputo Protocol but what change will it bring women?

Last week Uganda government became the 28th AU Member to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa commonly known as the Maputo Protocol.

This came at the time when Africa was deliberating about the state of women’s rights at the African Union summit on Maternal, Infant and Child Health and Development in Africa and the AU Women’s Decade 2010-2020.

The Maputo Protocol enshrines civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the rights to development and peace and reproductive and sexual rights. It provides a legal framework for addressing gender inequality and the underlying aspects that perpetuate women’s subordination.

The protocol had earlier attracted controversy regarding abortion rights but besides that I am wondering how much will this ratification bring to Ugandan women.

The situation of most women in Uganda leaves a lot to be desired. According to the 2007 MDG Report published by UNDP Uganda Country Office, the average Ugandan woman spends 9 hours a day on care labor activities such as fetching water, firewood and caring for the sick.  Women in Uganda represent 80% of the agricultural labor force, they are responsible for about 80% of the food crop production and continue to contribute about 60% of the labor for cash crop production.

The health of a Ugandan woman is most at risk. The maternal mortality rates remain very high at 435 women out of 100,000 lose their lives while giving birth; while 76 out of 1000 new mothers lose their infants in their first weeks of life.

The Universal Primary Education (UPE) initiated by the Government of Uganda in 1997 has significantly narrowed the gender enrollment gap but girl child dropout rates are significantly higher than those of boys. Only 42% of girls in Uganda complete their primary education compared to 55% of boys due to financial constraints, family responsibilities, illness, early marriages and pregnancies.

Although Uganda implemented affirmative action policy to reduce gender imbalances in governance and politics hence bringing the women in parliament to 31 percent, there remains a problem. Most women in our parliament belong to the ruling party and within the party many are handpicked hence do not necessarily serve the cause of women. They serve the powers that bestowed leadership unto them. Many Ugandan women still lack of control over land which is a major cause of their poverty.

Domestic violence and sexual violence against women is reality. For those women in conflict torn Uganda the situation is alarming. Many sexual violence victims do not get justice or even medical care.

In most parts of Uganda violence against women is accepted as justified by “traditional values.”  Many women have been exposed to HIV because of this vulnerability. But through all this, women haven’t been spectators.  As many as 77 per cent of women in Uganda believe that their husbands beating them is acceptable behavior.  More than 78 per cent continue to experience domestic violence. According to the 2009 Police Crime Report there was a rise in reported cases of death resulting from domestic violence, from 137 in 2008 to 165 in 2009.

This year, Uganda passed the Domestic Violence Act.

Susan Oregede a programme officer for Prevention of Gender Based Violence at Oxfam in Uganda wrote that “many aspects of the new law that will strengthen the fight against domestic violence but the law alone may not make much impact in the fight against domestic violence.”

The law gave local councils a mandate to try cases of domestic violence; put fines for perpetrators and penalises injuring or endangering the health of partner. It’s illegal to deny a partner the economic or financial resources to which they are entitled.

However Oregede says

a change in attitudes, behaviours, customs and traditions that discriminate against women and perpetuate violence against women will provide a long lasting solution and ensure that all men and women enjoy their full rights.

So in the light of all this, I wondered what Ugandan women will get from the Maputo protocol. Is it just another body of text to show that governments are working on women’s issues?

When the Protocol was signed, I saw a statement from the Foreign Affairs ministry saying the signing was “a clear demonstration that the government of Uganda is still committed to the realization of women’s rights in Africa.” But what will change women’s lives will not be this protocol but clear steps taken to address obstacles that lie in the path for Ugandan women to be emancipated.

I asked Lina Zedriga,  a Women peace and security activist from Advocates for Public International Law Uganda (APILU) and she said:

While Protocol brings welcomed developments/ provisions like the abolishment of female genital mutilation and protection of which will put women’s issues a step forward, there are still some hurdles that must be overcome. The challenges of implementing this Protocol include the fact that article 14 is unconstitutional in many countries including Uganda.

Article 14 (2) (c ) is about abortion. It seeks to protect the reproductive rights of women by allowing for medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where the pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health or life of the mother or foetus.

Many had opposed this because it is believed that women will use this provision to abort under the pretext that due to depression or anxiety, they cannot afford to keep the unborn child growing inside them. It has also been argued that this provision is against the traditional African family values and is about radical feminists who are being promoted by western NGOs bent on eroding African culture and spreading colonialism. It remains to be seen how this will be handled.  In addition the law reform process is slow and it may take years to implement this Protocol. There is also opposition to the protocol by traditional, cultural land political leaders because many of them do not consider women’s issues as important.

So even with the Maputo protocol in place, many Ugandan women will have to continue waiting and I do hope that it won’t be too long.

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