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close this bookDevelopment in Conflict - The Gender Dimension (Oxfam, 1994)
close this folderII. Case studies
close this folderA: The impact of armed conflict on gender relations
View the documentCase Study 1: Cambodia
View the documentCase Study 2: Somalia
View the documentCase Study 3: Uganda

Case Study 3: Uganda

Judy El-Bushra


Uganda suffered a series of brutal and destructive civil wars and despotic regimes from the late 1960s till the mid-1980s. It is well endowed with agricultural resources, though these were all but destroyed during the war years, when people fled from their lands, and huge numbers of animals were killed.

The present government subdued most of the country in the mid-1980s and since then has installed a system of popular representation, and overseen a substantial return to production. Insurgency and insecurity continued to exist until recently in the north, but now appear to have ended. The country's struggle to regain economic viability puts enormous strain on the small rural producers who form the majority of the population, caught between their own subsistence needs and the needs of the country to collect taxes and to produce for export.

Changes in gender relations

1 Pre-conflict gender relations

Until about 20 years ago, gender relations among many Ugandan population groups were characterised by a clear division between men's and women's tasks and between the resources each needed to perform them. In northern Uganda, for example, men took responsibility for livestock, over which they had total control, and for the cultivation of cash crops which were used to underwrite the family's expenses such as taxes, school fees, clothes, and basic household supplies. Women helped their husbands on the family farms, following a fairly strict division of labour in which the heaviest tasks were reserved for men. Women also kept fields of their own, from which they supplied the family's subsistence needs; they alone worked on these fields and controlled the consumption of the produce, which was never sold and which men had no access to.

This division was backed up by a framework of marriage dominated by the husband's authority but within which wives had certain defined rights, upheld by the clan and the community. From the legal point of view, marriage was indissoluble, except by the repayment by the wife's family of the bride-wealth that had been paid by the husband. Until this happened, the husband and his clan had total control over the wife's productive and reproductive capacity i.e. neither her produce, her belongings, nor her children were her own, and the burden of supporting her and her children economically fell on her husband and his family. Many Ugandan communities practiced the inheritance of widows by the surviving brother of a deceased husband; a widow who refused this arrangement would not only have to fend for herself but would be entirely dispossessed by her husband's family, and stripped of all except-and sometimes including-the clothes she stood up in.

2 Changes in the past two decades

Since then, various factors have had an impact on gender relations to create an arrangement in which women have the greater share of responsibility and work, yet still the same limited control over resources, and few enabling rights. These factors include the war and male labour migration (leading to women being obliged to take over many previously male functions), and the increasing pressures to find cash which have resulted in even women's food crops being sold. Loss of oxen through war also adds to the family's agricultural labour burden.

3 Changes since the cessation of war

The personal status of women has in certain respects changed for the better. The ending of the war and the disbanding of armed camps has lowered the risks of violence and rape from soldiers; economic opportunities for women have opened up and there is a generally increased recognition of the importance of their role. However, there are numerous exceptions to this, and levels of domestic and other forms of violence against women are still high. Abused women have few refuges: the common understanding among both women and men is that violence is part of marriage and women have no choice but to tolerate it. Likewise, women who have been raped, especially if they become pregnant, may not be able to count on the sympathy of their families.

4 An increased imbalance between men and women

Within the family, the division of labour has changed from being a relatively clear one to being blurred. Women may have to clear land or perform other traditionally male agricultural tasks in men's absence, while men have moved into women's activities wherever there is a profit to be made by doing so. Women have also tended to lose access to their own subsistence land because of the need to concentrate family labour on cash crops, a factor which has sometimes had alarming consequences for food security and for the environment.

Whereas previously it was regarded as a husband's responsibility to pay children's school fees and provide basic household necessities, these are now regarded as women's responsibilities. The need to find cash for family expenses imposes an additional labour burden on women, who habitually work without rest from dawn to night while their husbands are free for the latter part of the day to engage in leisure pursuits. Women often provide their husbands with spending money, which they may use to buy beer, (often coming home drunk and beating their wives) or save so as to marry additional wives. This labour burden is a serious constraint to women's full participation in the lives of their families as well as their communities. However, there are increasing numbers of men who recognise this problem, many of whom seek to share the burden of domestic work with their wives in spite of being ridiculed for doing so.

5 Violence and unhappiness in the private sphere

The imbalance between women's and men's work is one of several factors which have led to increased fragility of marriage, and unhappiness in marriage figures very highly in women's accounts of their problems. Fear of violence and of rejection by husbands is a major cultural undercurrent visible in the songs and poems sung by women. Women married to violent or indolent husbands may decide to continue in unhappy marriages because they seek the respectability that married status brings or because they are offered no sympathy or help from their own families.

The dispossession of widows (of whom there are now many) continues, but the custom is now widely seen as a contributory factor to the spread of AIDS and is tending to be practiced less often. This in itself is problematic for some widows, who may have no means of support other than from their husband's family.

6 Changes within communities

In the past, responsible behaviour on the part of men, women and young people was sanctioned by the community. Community pressures have all but disappeared and this has had both welcome and unwelcome effects. On the one hand, brutal punishments such as those meted out in cases of unmarried pregnancy (to the girl and to the boy if he could be identified) are no longer practiced. On the other hand the moral education of children is increasingly neglected, while violent or unreasonable husbands may no longer be held up to criticism as in the past.

In some areas of the country, especially in the north where camps of armed soldiers of various armies have been in existence, there is a growing problem of 'camp followers'— women who have no means of support other than to attach themselves to garrisons, providing sexual favours for the armed forces. Many of these women have been rejected by their communities after being raped-perhaps by the soldiers themselves-or have been repudiated by their husbands, and have been unable to rely on the support of their families.

A positive outcome of the present development outlook of the country is the widespread acceptance of women's role in community affairs. Women are influential in local government and there are a large number of women's groups of different sorts which play important community roles. Women are widely represented in community-based groups, both women's groups and mixed groups.

7 Conflict and AIDS

No consideration of gender relations in Uganda can be complete without mentioning AIDS, which is now affecting every village and every section of the community. As is well-known now, women are affected by AIDS not only through their own sexual relations but also as mothers and grandmothers of AIDS patients. There is little doubt that the disruption of the war and the postwar years, and the continued presence of camps of armed forces in some parts of the country, have contributed substantially to the spread of the disease.

8 The role of the state

The present Ugandan government has put much weight behind its policy of encouraging the participation of women in all areas of national life. A women's ministry has been set up to review projects and ensure that women's needs are taken care of. A minimum number of women is required in local government councils at all levels in addition to the inclusion of specific women's representatives. A constitutional commission is reviewing, amongst other things, women's legal rights, which should be enshrined in the new constitution.

The implementation of such positive policies is beset by many constraints, not least the lack of funds, from which all government initiatives suffer, and the even greater lack of resources allocated specifically to women's activities. Moreover, the Women in Development policy as interpreted by the government has been criticised for being focused on encouraging women into ever more intensive income-generation, thus increasing their burden of work, without making concomitant changes in their position in society or in their control of resources.


The division of labour in Uganda has become much more flexible following the war. As in Cambodia, this has come about through necessity and has resulted in a huge burden of work for women.

Ugandan women, whether in marriage or single heads of families, have had to take responsibility for managing and providing for their families. The ending of the war has not resulted in this burden being lifted.

Violence against women is still common, and is a function of the levels of violence in society as a whole and of the lack of respect for women in general.

Government policies and pronouncements have had a very positive effect in enabling women to take wider public and family roles. However, since they have been focused on increasing women's productivity, they have not tended to amount to much more than an increasing imposition of work on women.