Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Uganda's Make Believe Equal Rights Pact

The 2003 Maputo Protocol, drafted as an update or addition to the 1981 African Charter on Human And People's Rights, was signed by 23 African nations, one of which was Uganda. In the articles of the treaty were frameworks for a more just way of dealing with issues of women's rights, especially in Uganda. Issues such as marriage, property rights, land rights, and the end to female genital mutilation.

Overjoyed at the signing of the treaty, Ugandan women celebrated their uplifted station in life, since before the treaty, they were basically a man's cattle to do with as he pleased. Rape charges were not even considered should a husband force himself on his wife before the treaty, and were she to be raped by another man, abortion was out of the question.

New women's groups started forming, because although Ugandan women had been treated badly in so far as discrimination in the workplace and education were concerned, historically, Ugandan women were also held in high esteem when it came to matters of religion, although once the Catholic Church got their hands on the country, (which boasts an 80% Christian conversion rate), that esteem slowly faded to a mere token representation.

One of the treaties biggest innovations and what many rights groups considered a positive move forward was the inclusion of the woman or women (Ugandan men still practice widespread polygamy), in the marital estate. Split between the family of the man and the man's wife or wives in the event of his death, the treaty provided a far cry better set of protections for the widow than ever before.

But in steps Uganda's religious leaders. As with all fanatical sects, the men that run these so called houses of worship decried the treaty and the new found voice of Uganda's women. Their biggest issue was the right the treaty gave to women to receive an abortion, even if a product of rape, incest, or the mother's life being in danger. And so, all of the gains since the time that Specioza Wandira Kazibwe became Uganda's first female Vice-President in 1995, boldly announcing a new dawn for the country's women and declaring that she would forbid "laws, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women", almost all of the gains of the Maputo Protocol have been washed away and swept under the rug.

Although still officially a signatory to the treaty, Uganda's current leaders do nothing to enforce the articles that are provided within. Now, Uganda's women are back to being cattle for men, with polygamous practices rampant. If the husband gets sick and dies, it is once again the family who receives all of the household's belongings, leaving the wife or wives with absolutely nothing.

Left to fend for herself the widow is likely to be forced into slave labor, or if young enough, prostitution. The reason the families of the husband are allowed to get away with this practice is by claiming the wife 'bewitched' her husband and that caused his death. With the backing of local clergy, the family is then entitled to all of the dead husband's household possessions. Everything. From the food in the cupboards, to the furniture, money, clothing, pictures on the walls, and even the home itself.

Also forgotten by the world is how the women of Uganda are often pressed into service to fight in wars. When the fighting ends, the women and often young teen girls, are not counted as part of the military, and so, receive no benefits even if wounded. It's just back to whatever she was doing before, hopefully finding a husband who won't beat her too much.

People ask how this could have happened in a country that was at one time seen as the one that could lead Africa out of it's stone age mentality. Carol Bunga Idembe of the Kampala-based Uganda Women's Network summed it up quite nicely. She said "The problem was people began looking at themselves: their personal interests, their own marriages. It could not pass."

One would think that the easiest way out for Ugandan women would be to not marry at all, but the practice of fathers or brothers 'arranging' marriages is still widespread and the women have no choice but to go along, lest violence occur. The woman is expected to stay by the husband's side, even if he commits adultery and contracts AIDS. Refusal to have relations with the husband who has AIDS has cost Ugandan women their lives, or those who escape, utter destitution.

Either way though, the lot of the Ugandan woman has not improved under this fake equal rights pact, because when her husband is alive, she has no rights. When he dies, she has no rights to any property, including her own. In other words, Ugandan women have no rights at all, and the United Nations should be breathing down the African Union's neck to get them to enforce all of the articles of the Maputo Protocol, no exceptions granted.

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