46 years on, women still not independent in Uganda

Independence marks the day the Uganda flag replaced the Union Jack when the British Colonialists let go of Uganda and its resources and left it in the hands of nationals.

Over four decades later, we have lots of achievements rolling off our tongues, written in books by historians and extolled at international gatherings. One area where the country is praised for working so hard at making the lives of its citizens better is the empowerment of women socially, economically and politically.

Today, I want to take a quick look at the real situation on ground in this area and what more needs to be done. I am taking an unusual view at this; national vs individual independence and my focus is on the independence of women in the face of the current HIV epidemic.

Women, not only in Uganda but world over, are the most affected by the HIV epidemic. Estimates show that out of about one million Ugandans living with HIV, more than half are women. It is not that they are the most sexually active, but the one factor that puts them at great risk is their inherent dependence on men and the subsequent vulnerability.

Women in Uganda have no inheritance rights; they are discriminated in education, which limits their opportunities to exploit their potential. This in turn limits their economic muscle and independence, increasing their vulnerability and dependence on men.

The majority of women, especially in the Third World, do not control their sexuality. Decision regarding when and how to have sex are made for them by their partners, the number of children to bear is decided by the partner, how much money to spend on maternal health at household level is made by the partner.

This leaves women no option but to be submissive lest the support is withheld. Speaking in 2000, the then WHO director general, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, brought out the risk of living under this kind of cloud.

He said, “we will not achieve progress against HIV until women gain control over their sexuality.” And I must add that we will not achieve complete independence as a nation until the women gain their body autonomy.

Women’s submissiveness leaves them vulnerable to HIV infection. They cannot negotiate safe sex, they cannot say no to sex, even when they are sure their partner is having sexual relations elsewhere.

With the emergence of HIV discordance among couples, the situation is worse; the women are battered, thrown out of their homes and called irresponsible. In extreme cases, three women have been reported in the local press to have been killed by their spouses in different parts of the country over the last one year.

When they give birth to HIV-positive children, they are blamed like they wished it to happen. Many of them go for HIV tests but they are afraid to share the results with their husbands; the repercussions can be extreme.

This affects their adherence to treatment, in case they are found positive and have to be put on drugs. In some cases, even those testing negative cannot discuss the results because they will be asked why they went for the test. Are they suspicious of their own conduct or do they suspect their husbands? This can easily spark off a conflict which the woman loses in most cases.

According to results of a study released by Action Aid early this year, in Pallisa district, in one year alone, at least 100 out of the 465 women who went for HIV testing experienced violence on declaring their HIV status.

One of the reasons HIV prevalence is highest among married people may be due to this culture of silence; a culture that is nurtured by the male dominance of women; a culture that locks women out of the information dissemination and sharing arena.

So, as we celebrate national independence, we need to focus on independence at the individual level because a nation is made up of an aggregate on individuals. A truly independent nation is a result of the good health of its people, especially the women on whose shoulders most of the production in this country rests. We need to move from macro-level speeches and examine what is happening at the micro.

By Milly Nattimba – is a MUSPH/CDC HIV/AIDS Fellow attached to the school’s department of Health Policy, Planning and Management and The New Vision



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