Doing ‘Gender Justice’ in Northern Uganda

Doing ‘Gender Justice’ in Northern Uganda©DR/JMI
Gender justice training Uganda
9 min 8Approximate reading time

The microcredit was the biggest benefit I received. It gave me dignity and made me respectable. I can even afford to make myself beautiful. Without that, I couldn’t have found a husband. Nobody wants to marry a woman who was raped, but he finds me beautiful because I can take care of myself.’

So reads the statement of a female survivor of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) who had received economic assistance by the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV), an international organization (IO) that helps the victims of the 20 year civil war that raged in Northern Uganda between 1987 and 2008. The TFV’s report claims that SGBV survivors said that this assistance helped them to see themselves as ‘real women’ again.

When I asked a gender specialist what survivors like the woman quoted above mean when they say they feel like ‘real women’ again, she replied: ‘For her, this is the idea that she can be seen in her society as a woman who has value; now for better or worse this means that she can find a good husband. Her value as a woman is determined by her desirability to men. Well that is the same in a lot of cultures including mine [USA]. For her, this made her feel normal again.’

This reply left me somewhat puzzled. Does that mean it is pointless to change features of sexist culture in Northern Uganda, which we have not managed to eradicate in ‘Western’ societies? Or does it imply that the ideas and aspirations of SGBV survivors should guide our understanding of what ‘gender justice’ means after war?

The transition from war to peace often has complex and contradictory consequences for women. On the one hand, research suggests that women’s experiences of SGBV are frequently continuous: while violence against women peaks during times of conflict, it persists after conflict, especially in the form of domestic violence. In a study on female survivors of conflict-related SGBV in Northern Uganda, 90 out of the 97 survivors interviewed said that they still face the same threats of sexual violence as in the past.

On the other hand, it is often claimed that war creates ‘a gender dividend’ as women take on more responsibilities during wars as providers for their families, as workers or even as warriors thereby destabilizing traditional gender roles. As a civil society representative in Kampala told me: ‘During the war, gender roles shifted. Women were more active within the camps. Even if it was only a small garden, they would plant something. Men were just there to wait for people to bring food and they got used to it. And now, they are back and are still waiting for food. Women have taken up this strong role of providing food for the family but now the men are starting to question this power that the women have.’

Domestic violence is prevalent today in Northern Uganda possibly because of these changing power dynamics and what has been referred to as the ‘identity crisis’ of men. Yet, despite these complexities, many practitioners prefer to focus on the ‘gender dividend’ of war and how it can be used after the conflict to create more ‘gender-just’ societies.


Mary Karooro Okurut, Minister of Gender, Labour & Social Development, Government of Uganda, at Girl Summit 2014. Photo via DFI

Indeed, many of the NGOs that swamped Northern Uganda, after the civil war ended between 2006 and 2008, came with the mission to exploit this ‘gender dividend’ in order to ‘empower women.’ Yet, what does ‘empowering women’ actually look like in post-war Northern Uganda and what can these organizations contribute to it?

I discussed these questions with a few people working for ‘gender justice’-focused NGOs in Uganda. They told me that their work of ‘empowering women’ is difficult because many women primarily want communal acceptance and reintegration. An NGO worker told me: ‘and in any event most women will be reluctant for that [transformative] approach. They tell you:“what do you want from me? I’m already a pariah. Now you want to add another burden?”’

There are often tensions between what such women think is good for them and what the NGOs think is good for them. Yet, many NGOs want to have their cake and eat it: they want a ‘victim-centered approach’ that is participatory and takes victims’ perspectives and needs into account. But they also want to build a society that corresponds to their human rights-based ideas of gender equality.

But women in Northern Uganda have good reasons to be skeptical: while measures to achieve gender justice may be in their long-term interest, they are often not perceived to be in their short-term interest. And when you depend on your community for your day-to-day survival, short-term thinking is a rational strategy. Besides, people in Northern Uganda had to learn that while NGOs promise long-term visions such as gender justice their operational planning is short-term too. Often, these organizations are not there long enough to see structural changes through. When I visited Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda, in 2014, many of the NGOs that came after the war had already left or considerably reduced their presence.

Yet, the NGOs that work in Northern Uganda are not naïve either. They acknowledge that doing ‘gender justice’ is not easy. The political will required for enforcing laws on gender equality is often lacking among governing elites. These organizations also face practical challenges such as acquiring long-term funding to support structural changes.

They say that you need to do a lot of community sensitization and awareness-raising to persuade men and women that ‘gender justice’ is in their interest. They say that you also have to enlist the stakeholders of the traditional order such as elders, religious and traditional leaders as they remain powerful and are seen as legitimate by many people including women. If you want to achieve anything, you cannot simply ignore them. But overall and over time, the efforts of these organizations in Northern Uganda go in the right direction. Or do they?

This is far from clear at this point. For one, there is little agreement in Northern Uganda what, exactly; the ‘society’ is that needs to be transformed. After all, societal structures were eroded in the course of 20 years of war. In addition to horrific crimes perpetrated by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) that ripped communities apart, the Ugandan government displaced over 1.7 million people in Northern Uganda and forced them to live in so-called ‘protective villages’ as part of its military strategy.

These crammed camps nurtured new socialization dynamics that alienated people from their communities. As one interviewee told me: ‘In the camp of course, it was about survival, because our gardens, our fields were left behind and we were surviving on the little relief from the World Food [sic], and the little that we struggled to get, that one you cannot spread all over, it means it is for you and your immediate family members so this is how our social fabric broke up.’

Indeed, many people in Northern Uganda see the high rate of violence against women as part of a larger social order problem rather than the result of changing gender roles. They blame the erosion of communal structures during the war and especially the diminishing respect for elders and the weakening of traditional justice institutions, for crime and the rise in land conflicts. They long for the old order that supposedly afforded more protection for women.

In Gulu, I arranged to meet one of those stakeholders of the ‘traditional’ order, a priest. His church hosts a centre to ‘empower women,’ especially former girl abductees, by offering them vocational training. Women can choose between becoming ‘tailors’ or ‘hairdressers’. They have to pay fees for these vocational courses ‘to avoid the spirit of getting free things inculcated by the war in northern Uganda.’

While emphasizing the importance of women's empowerment, the priest also suggested that one of the main challenges for the community is that young people do not respect their elders anymore. After our interview, he distressingly confided in me that he was not even sure the young women from the church’s centre would still kneel down in his presence. He then waved a young woman over to demonstrate this ‘degeneration of morals’ to me, but to my embarrassment the young woman immediately kneeled down.

In fact, there is a lot of ambiguity in the way the stakeholders of the traditional order talk about the need for societal transformation. A representative of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an organization that seeks to ‘mainstream the empowerment of women’ in all of its activities, lamented that nowadays, women who return to their father’s house after a failed marriage or the death of their husband are often chased away with their children.

This was very different in the ‘good old times’: ‘if you are my sister and you went to your home but your marriage did not work, and then you came back home my father would say, “you are also our daughter…we as your brothers, we will construct for you a hut, this is where you will stay, this is where your death will find you.”’ From this perspective, a ‘transformative’ Northern Uganda has to go backwards in order to go forward.

Other local and international actors want none of that. They see ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, rather than the war and its consequences, as the biggest problem for women. In their eyes, traditional justice rituals look more like mechanisms for reproducing patriarchy and male power rather than mechanisms for creating social order. They criticize the way these traditional justice mechanisms deal with rape as a ‘pollution of the spirits’ rather than as a crime. Perpetrators are ‘cleansed’ in the course of a public ritual rather than punished. The rituals are usually performed by male elders.

A psychologist who is working with victims of the conflict in the villages of Northern Uganda even argued, in an interview with me: ‘From my point of view, there is no justice for women [in Northern Uganda]. The lack of justice is not because of the war but because of the culture. Culturally, when you marry you go to the clan of the husband where you count [for] nothing. Justice you can only have if you have the capacity to bribe the police...It is not a war issue.’

However, the NGO/IO claim of slowly but surely nudging Northern Uganda towards transformative justice does not only ignore different visions of how a ‘transformed’ society should look like. It also creates a pseudo-harmony of interests and values where there is often a real clash. For example, the UN gender discourse is now all about the societal benefits that gender equality brings for everyone: men and women. In the 2011 report ‘The Gender Dividend: A Business Case for Gender Equality’, UN Women cites research that shows that ‘across 134 countries, gender equality correlates positively with per capita Gross National Product…’

The UN Women’s ‘HeForShe’ solidarity campaign that became widely known through Emma Watson’s speech at the UN claims that ‘when women are empowered, the whole of humanity benefits. Gender equality liberates not only women but also men, from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes.’

The rationale of the campaign is that if only we enlisted men and boys as ‘advocates and agents of change’ in this common struggle against gender stereotypes, gender equality would be well within our reach. The main obstacle for gender equality is that people do not understand that we are all victims of gender roles constructed by an unspecified society.

Yet, this gender discourse masks the extent to which gender inequality is not simply the result of ignorance and lack of understanding. It is also the result of deliberate oppression of women by some men and the fact that the majority of men has vested interest in perpetuating gender roles and their inscribed inequality.

For example, many government officials, community leaders, elders and male family members in Northern Uganda see their power and ownership of land threatened by measures to achieve gender justice. The psychologist I interviewed claimed, ‘A woman who is beaten up with panga [in Northern Uganda], if she reports it she may risk to be killed. Even the NGOs that defend women’s rights for example FIDA, they assess the situation to consider if their intervention can put in further danger the woman.’ If war creates a ‘gender dividend’ at all, it is not one that can be easily exploited.

But NGOs often seem blind to these tensions. They emphasize the importance of involving traditional leaders in their gender strategy and call on them to reform justice rituals to allow more women participation. Yet, these optimistic calls for reform sit uneasily with the admission by the same organizations that traditional leaders are often reluctant or unable to actually change traditional practices.

What if radical change such as ‘gender justice’ requires real struggle rather than gradual nudging? What if you cannot talk the traditional power holders into change but have to wrestle power from them? In fact, this seems to be implicit in the way many NGOs/IOs complain about the lack of political will at the local and national level. Why then, do they continue with ‘business as usual’?

The problem for these organizations is that they are institutionally and ideologically constrained from being agents of real political and socio-economic struggle. Institutionally, the operations of many international and local organizations that rely on external funding depend on finding an arrangement with the status quo powers: the national government and local elites. Ideologically, the pervasive charge of neocolonialism means that political change that is associated with external, ‘Western’ support is perceived as unacceptable.

Don’t get me wrong: awareness-raising about gender constructs and women’s rights is good.  But it may not be enough. Transforming societies may require acknowledging that all good things: tradition and reform, victims’ aspirations and women’s empowerment, a victims-centered approach and a human rights-based approach, order and justice do not always go together.

There are tough trade-offs and inconvenient choices to be made and not everyone will be a genuine ‘agent of change’ in transformative justice. The jury is still out on the ‘gradual nudging’ approach of international organizations, but there should at least be a more honest debate on how ‘gender justice’ also has real enemies who may talk the talk but not walk the walk.

"This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net"