On a Journey to Uganda, an Important Lesson Learned

Ari EisenBy Ari Eisen, JWI

My name is Ari Eisen and I am one of the 2014 summer interns for JWI. I am a rising senior at The University of Michigan majoring in International Studies with a focus on global health. Driven by my passion for international human rights, global health and women’s rights, I am inspired and motivated by JWI’s work and am thrilled by the opportunity to help out this summer!

I would like to share a personal experience as it relates to the work we do here at JWI. Last summer, from June to August 2013, I lived and worked in a village in Eastern Uganda. I was interning for the Uganda Village Project, a non-profit public-health organization that promotes health education as the key to disease prevention. Stationed in Bukaigo village in the town of Iganga, I worked with my team to plan and carry out educational programs specific to the needs of the village. After conducting a village-wide needs assessment, the following issues proved most prevalent: malaria, HIV/AIDS, hygiene and sanitation, safe water access, family planning and reproductive rights. My team conducted weekly sensitizations providing the local community with helpful information for both treatment and prevention of diseases through implementing proper health and hygiene practices.

Throughout my experience, I was most fascinated by the interactions between the men and women in my village and, interestingly, how the gendered power dynamics affected health. As resilient and hardworking as they were, the village women were consistently treated with disrespect by their husbands and male leaders, excluded from all major decision making (financial and child education, for example) and shamed or punished if they digressed from these norms. Forced into submissive roles, the women of the village were victims of physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse.

Specifically, I witnessed abuse when it came to sex education. My team planned a compressive sensitization that included information on family planning and sexually transmitted infections, and that concluded with the distribution of contraceptives. While the majority of the village women were excited to learn about the importance reproductive health, the men were reluctant and uncooperative. They interrupted our presentation by calling out and laughing and many prevented their wives from taking advantage of the free contraceptives we offered. Some men would not even permit their wives to attend the session. It quickly became evident that the women in my village did not have control of their reproductive rights, their health practices and, in essence, their own bodies. Their husbands decided if and when condoms or other contraceptives were to be used and when it was time to have another child. To me, this was abuse.

That being said, it is important to acknowledge that I am a university student from North America who has a different perspective on women’s rights. My greatest challenge with development work thus far has been being intentional, respectful and cautious in shaping my role as a provider of foreigner aid. For the conservative village women who believe firmly in keeping tradition, who am I to come into their homes and impose my own beliefs? What gives me, a young adult from a completely different part of the world, the authority to tell people that how they are living is wrong? Is it possible to effectively and sustainably distribute aid without creating these unequal power dynamics and without fostering dependency? I am constantly challenged by these and many other questions that make up the core of development theory and practice.

Significantly, during my stay in Uganda a controversial law was passed that made it illegal to wear revealing clothing, including tops that showed too much cleavage and miniskirts (anything above the knee). The implication of this legislation, that the way a woman dresses incites a man to rape, perpetuates the victim-blaming mentality that has proven ineffective and seriously harmful.

Rita Achiro of the Uganda Women’s Network remarks that, “Such laws actually take a country like Uganda backwards in regards to women’s empowerment. I do not want to look at it just as the miniskirt, but rather look at it from controlling women’s bodies, and eventually that will end up into actual total control of women.” (Voice of America, New Law Bans Miniskirts in Uganda)

As Achiro emphasizes, this issue is way larger than the just the miniskirt. It is a reflection of the lack of control Ugandan women have over their reproductive rights and personal sexual health. Regaining control begins with education. And I saw a glimmer of success with my work. I was able to debunk multiple myths concerning contraceptives such as condoms causing cancer, birth control pills piling up in the stomach and IUDs growing within the uterus. Not surprisingly, these myths are largely perpetuated by the male portion of the population, who believe that the number of children a man can produce is a measure of his masculinity. I was able to distribute contraceptives to women that had never before used them and am hopeful this initial push will promote future contraceptive use and smart family planning choices. I am confident that at least a portion of women benefited from our sessions. And that’s all it takes to initiate change.

Women and girls, both locally and globally, are being deprived of their fundamental human rights, reproductive rights being just one of numerous examples. It is imperative that action be taken to educate women and girls about their health and human rights, to advocate for educational, legislative, social and economic reforms and to empower women and girls everywhere to stand up and do the same.

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