by Patricia Hughes and Wendi Walsh

The Republic of Uganda is in central east Africa and bounded by Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania.  Many groups have tried to exert control over Uganda including Africans, Arab traders, British explorers and business people, and Christian missionaries.  The British ruled beginning in the late 1800s and Uganda gained their independence in 1962.  The period since then has been marked by intermittent conflicts, military coups, and most recently a civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) (Uganda, n.d.).

More than forty languages are spoken in Uganda, although the official language is English.  Luganda, a central language, is widely spoken across the country.  A largely Christian country, 12% of the population is Muslim, and traditional indigenous beliefs are sometimes practiced alongside Christianity or Islam.  The country is home to over 30 different ethnic groups and tribes, which have their own music styles dating back to the 18th century.

For decades, Uganda’s economy suffered from devastating economic policies and instability, contributing to Uganda’s status as one of the world’s poorest countries.  Thirty-eight percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 USD a day.  Uganda has substantial natural resources, including fertile soils, regular rainfall, sizable deposits of copper and cobalt, and largely untapped reserves of crude oil and natural gas.  Agriculture and the service industry provide for most of the country’s GDP and exports (Uganda, n.d.).

Rural Ugandans, including 90% of all rural women, use farming as their main source of income.  Rural women are also responsible for caretaking within their families. The average Ugandan woman spends nine hours a day on domestic tasks such as preparing food and clothing, fetching water and firewood, and caring for the elderly and orphans.  Adding work in the fields, women work between 12 and 18 hours per day, compared to men, who work between eight and ten hours a day.  Some rural women engage in small-scale entrepreneurial activities such as rearing and selling animals, but these efforts are often thwarted by their heavy workloads.

Uganda’s literacy rate at the 2002 census was 67 percent (77% male and 58% female).  Although some primary education is mandatory under law, in many rural communities this is not observed as many families cannot afford uniforms and scholastic materials.  Girls often drop out of school to help at home or to get married; other girls engage in sex work.  As a result, young women tend to have older and more sexually experienced partners and this puts women at a disproportionate risk of getting infected by HIV.   Maternal health in rural Uganda lags behind national goals, with geographical inaccessibility, lack of transport and financial burdens posing key constraints to accessing maternal health services (Uganda, n.d.).

Women have a lower social status than men, which reduces their power to act independently, participate in community life, become educated or escape reliance on abusive men.  Uganda has realized that the lack of women’s rights is a major cause of poverty, and policies such as the National Gender Policy in 1997 and the National Action Plan on Women (NAPW) have been enacted to improve the social, legal/civic, political, economic and cultural conditions of women (Uganda, n.d.).

Why Women’s Leadership is Important to Uganda

            Being a woman in Uganda makes one vulnerable to issues related to HIV/AIDS, a male-dominated culture, less education, sexual violence and sex trafficking. “We know that women have to be empowered to find solutions to these vulnerabilities,” says Betty Kagoro, Country Convener for this Project.  “Women in Uganda, like elsewhere in the world, are much more than victims.  They play an active role in nurturing, providing, educating, leading, managing, supporting interventions at different levels in society.”

Betty stresses that the importance of women’s leadership has long been recognized, but without building their capacity to identify their strengths, abilities and competencies, women won’t achieve much.  “In order to achieve sustainable empowerment of women, it is essential to involve women at all levels of social economic development processes,” she says.  “Experiences across the globe show the same unforgettable lessons – when women’s capacity is enhanced, the entire community is enhanced.  Enhancing women’s leadership competencies will lead to social justice, income generating projects like craft making and poultry farming, making healthy decisions like accessing HIV care, prenatal care, and family planning services, and serving as role models to younger women.”

It is important to recognize women’s efforts to promote leadership and social justice among Ugandan women, such as the Action for Women in Development, the Forum for Women in Development, and the Forum for Women Educationalists.  These groups have played a tremendous role in bringing women’s plight to the forefront.  Sadly, Betty observes, these passionate efforts on many occasions have been confrontational as opposed to practical, and have not always yielded the much-desired results.  “These efforts are often elitist and have not opened up constructive engagement with women at grass roots levels, who most need the knowledge and skills to improve their lives.”

Biography of Convener Betty Kagoro

“I have always loved young people,” says Betty.  Indeed, she worked at an adolescent health communications non-governmental organization (NGO) for seven years where she established youth initiatives in Liberia, Kenya and India.  While she recognizes the good that these programs did, Betty was also aware that in Uganda, many young people were dropping out of school due to early pregnancy, forced marriage, drug abuse, infection with HIV/AIDS, indulging in antisocial behavior – all of which continued to impact them negatively the rest of their lives.  Betty believed that agencies serving teens needed to revisit their strategies, that these agencies needed to collaborate more and involve the young people in the design of programs to make them more meaningful and impactful.

Betty became an iLEAP Fellow in Seattle in 2009.  iLEAP is an international nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire and renew social leaders and global citizens through values-based leadership programs.  The program fosters collaboration with social change leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America to build regional networks of change leaders who are committed to building strong global partnerships for social change.  Following her iLEAP experience, Betty returned to Uganda with renewed passion to empower and positively influence teenagers to deal with life challenges.  She worked for a year to gain NGO certification for Teen Empowerment Uganda (TEU), a certification that has just been renewed for three years.

Betty’s Work at Teen Empowerment Uganda

Currently, Betty works for the Unites States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Uganda Country Office as a Communications Specialist.  She supports TEU from her own income as she, board members and volunteers seek additional funding.  The TEU program concentrates on building strengths in teen programs.  “We intend to develop teen potential by focusing on individual assets through mentoring, coaching, skills development and service learning,” Betty says.  “We concentrate our efforts away from just fixing problem teens, towards creating positive opportunities to develop teen potential for lifelong success.”

TEU’s activities focus on social skills, stress management, puberty and sexual health especially for girls, service learning and social action, self esteem development, school success and safety, goal setting, gifts and talents, friendship formation, parent-teen relationships, leadership skills, civics roles and responsibilities, respect for self and others, decision-making and doing right.  For more information on TEU, go to

Conversation Circle

In the Conversation Circles, the group explored the following four questions:

1.  What do you care about in your community and in what projects have you participated?

2.  As you engaged in this work, what skills have you used?

3.  What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?

4.  How do imagine you might develop these skills?

1.         Betty convened five educated, professional women who are very active in their careers, churches, families and communities.  The projects they are engaged in focus on helping new mothers and newly married women become more connected with each other and economically independent, providing leadership and communication skills to young women leaders and adolescents, doing peace and justice work with refugees, leading women’s circles to organize service, sharing experiences and providing inter-religious communication among women at church, and providing adult cross-cultural education.

2.         The skills the women identified were categorized by personal and project management.  Personal skills included empathy, consulting with and learning from parents and their faith traditions, self-belief and self esteem, learning from peers, coping with emotions, positive energy and giving others compliments, ambition, being visionary, being non-judgmental, modeling and being available to each other without meddling, and being good communicators including listening, counseling and being assertive.  Some of the project management skills they use in their leadership approach include mentoring, organization, decision making and mobilizing others – which includes many skills such as participation, consultation, dialogue, ownership, consensus building and evaluation. Other management skills noted include negotiation, facilitation, human resource management, supervision, debate, recording successes and celebrating achievements.

3.         The skills the women would like to gain include networking with positive role models and making friends, communication and public speaking, giving inspirational talks, practical management and organizational development, advocacy, self belief and confidence, assertiveness, mobilization, speaking up in a culture, mentoring, writing records and staying close to the people who have the skills they want to learn. Many of the women have specific continuing education goals such as how to run a business, learning more about microfinance, expanding their knowledge about such issues as maternal health, treating or ending malaria, early child development, modernizing the village and how to get scholarships to pursue this training.

4.         Many of the women said they can practice and learn these new skills within their church groups where they are already active. They also wish to learn from each other.  “Being a more advantaged woman than the members of my group, I always feel the urge to pass on skills to enable them improve their social and financial status, ” said one participant.  They also said they could learn through formal education and training, and in new jobs.

Kitchen Cabinet Letter to Betty:

Dear Betty,

Reading the stories and seeing the photographs of the women you convened helped me feel connected to all of you!  I was struck by some similar patterns to women in the U.S., such as how some of the women came naturally to leadership positions due to their family experiences, while others came reluctantly and only after being coaxed by a mentor or friendly person on their journey.  I think the same is true for women leaders in this country.  I believe every human being has gifts to share, and it is a social and moral injustice when we are not allowed to share these gifts on behalf of the common good.

I was also struck by the frequent mentions of the women being inspired by their parents and through their faith.  It takes courage to stand up for what we believe in, and we each find courage in different places, whether through community, our values, our faith or through previous experiences.  I wish you and your colleagues heartfelt best wishes and resilience to continue your very important work.

Warmly, Pat Hughes

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