KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–A young professional is fired and blacklisted after telling her boss she’s HIV-positive. A woman is driven out of her home by her husband after she is left incontinent from complications during childbirth. A teen is pulled out of school by her family so they can marry her off.
These are just a few of the all-too-common events in the lives of Ugandan women, scenarios that activists say would never befall men here and would be addressed very specifically by the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, commonly known as the Maputo Protocol.
The treaty, says Solome Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe, executive director of Kampala-based Akina Mama wa Afrika, is facing fierce religious opposition and is far from parliamentary ratification, however.
“It’s not a priority for government,” said Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe, who sees something of a backlash against women’s rights in Uganda.
For the first time in international law, the Maputo Protocol–named for the Mozambican capital where it was drafted in 2003 as an addition to the 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights–provided a legal framework for issues ranging from marriage and property rights to domestic violence to female genital mutilation.
Uganda was among the 23 African countries–slightly less than half of the member states of the African Union–to sign the protocol so far.
Since then, several members of parliament have spoken in favor of ratifying the protocol, which is backed by the Uganda Human Rights Commission, an influential and independent constitutional body charged with, among other things, ensuring the country’s compliance with international treaties.
Criticized as Western Import
But since its inception five years ago, opponents led by the Uganda Joint Christian Council, a powerful religious lobby, have condemned the protocol as an importation of Western-style women’s rights at cultural odds with the region.
To the contrary, says Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe. She describes it as the first treaty to specifically address contemporary African women’s issues: conflict, displacement, land rights and inheritance. “This is not something that was drafted in The Hague or Beijing,” she said.
Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe says Maputo provides the international legal framework needed for the much-lauded constitutional provisions for women in Uganda, which, at the moment, remain largely theoretical.
“The government has to own up to its commitments and be accountable to women in Uganda, and above all, to other states in the African Union,” she said.
Akina wa Mama and other women’s groups in Uganda are working to educate the public about the treaty. Akina wa Mama released a short video about the protocol–distributed to women’s groups around Africa and elsewhere–that highlighted unequal practices that commonly affect the lives of Ugandan women, from job discrimination to wife inheritance.
Pitched Battle Over Abortion
In Uganda, which is about 85 percent Christian, the protocol faces a pitched battle with Catholic bishops and other religious leaders who have focused on the issue of abortion.
Article 14 of the protocol guarantees women safe, legal medical abortion “in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the fetus.”
If Uganda ratified all articles of the Maputo Protocol it would necessitate a change to the country’s current legal code, which outlaws abortion under all circumstances, although clandestine abortion is widespread.
In 2006, the Uganda Joint Christian Council sought intervention from President Yoweri Museveni.
In a well-publicized letter to the president, they asked him to “reject any policy that would expose Uganda in particular, and Africa as a whole, to mass murder through the legalization of abortion.”
Last summer the former archbishop of Conakry, Guinea, was widely quoted speaking on behalf of bishops from several African nations who criticized the Maputo Protocol as “the slow but sure destruction of fundamental African values: respect for life, the importance of the family, motherhood, fertility and marriage.”
Stalled at Ministries
As a result, say women’s leaders, the issue has now all but stalled in Uganda, as the matter of ratifying the treaty is batted from ministry to ministry.
Museveni’s government was once hailed for its progressive policies on women’s rights.
The country had the first female African vice president, Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, and in 1995 women’s equality was written into the constitution, in a clause considered groundbreaking at the time, to forbid “laws, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women.”
The president was much lauded for an “affirmative action policy” that guaranteed at least one-third of legislative and civic positions be reserved for women.
But 13 years later, women’s activists here complain that those measures have been little more than window dressing.
The few instances in which women’s constitutional rights were put into force–last year, the Constitutional Court finally scrapped parts of an adultery law that allowed married men but not women to have an affair, for example–were the result of hard lobbying in court by women’s groups.
Meanwhile, the administration has recently displayed reluctance to pass any new so-called women’s legislation.
“People say, ‘You women, you are now (government) ministers, what more do you want?'” says Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe. “But we are not yet there. Until we have empowerment at the personal level for African women, we are not yet there.”
Despite the many women’s groups that have sprung up in Uganda over the last decade and–until recently–much glowing talk about progress for women enshrined in the country’s constitution, Ugandan women remain far behind men in many respects.
Women have no marital land rights here, and their literacy rates are far lower. Ugandan women suffer among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and few have access to decent reproductive health care.
Two years ago a broad piece of family law legislation that sought to outlaw marital rape, ease divorce for women, grant property rights to wives and regulate polygamy, which remains common throughout Africa, was first diluted and then abandoned by its advocates.
“The problem was people began looking at themselves: their personal interests, their own marriages. It could not pass,” said Carol Bunga Idembe of the Kampala-based Uganda Women’s Network, which lobbied heavily for the bill.
A Global Gender Gap Index released last year by Harvard University, London Business School and the World Economic Forum declared Uganda among the hardest places for women to live in the world, despite the fact that they seem to be “relatively politically empowered.”
Several other African countries have ratified the protocol “with reservations,” meaning they can exclude specific articles, such as article 14.
Women’s leaders say such a compromise might be a possible way of getting around the abortion debate without throwing out everything else in the treaty.
Rachel Scheier is a writer and editor based in Kampala.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.