Jennifer Makeba, Market Vendor at Gulu Market. Photo by Okeya John.
Jennifer Makeba, a Psychology graduate from Gulu University, makes a living out of cereals trade and is helping organize Women at Gulu Main Market for economic empowerment. Photo Credit: Okeya John.

KAMPALA: Uganda has over the years, grappled with different socio-economic barriers impeding gender inclusion and Women economic participation in the country.

Government in efforts to narrow this gender gap, through Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP), launched in 2015, sought to improve the income and contribution of Women towards Uganda’s economic development.

Though some strides are seen to be made towards empowering women economically through UWEP, a 2018 report by the Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE) found that the program, in striving to close the gap on financial inclusion, had failed to effectively deliver on its promise of gender transformative change.

The FOWODE report is alive to the fact that some Men continue to deny their wives the opportunity to participate in UWEP, due to the power dynamics at home. While still, competing domestic financial needs also impede Women from building and sustaining successful business enterprises.

Regrettably, there was a reported increase in domestic violence against women as 52% of Women whose incomes had increased as a result of UWEP, said to have suffered intimate partner violence, heightened by backlash over the program’s failure to incorporate Men in its implementation. These and other barriers continue to affect women’s economic participation in Uganda today. 

For Ms. Winifred Masiko, the UWEP National Programme’s Coordinator at Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, the program has been beneficial in uplifting marginalized Women. She indicated in a Wizarts Space that studies by Ministry of Gender and also Care International, found UWEP to have enhanced leadership capacities, financial inclusion and skills development, mostly for rural Women.

“There has been remarkable changes, this program has benefited those Women that deserve. And it’s true that we can comfortably talk about economic empowerment for the rural Women because this program, though it hasn't covered a big section of the population, the few that have received it have benefited greatly. These statistics are there and they have been given out by Care International,” Ms. Masiko said.

At its inauguration over five years ago, UWEP was first piloted in 20 Districts including Kampala, to improve access to financial services for Women and equip them with skills for enterprise growth, value addition and marketing. The program now covers about 132 Districts. For the first five years ending 2020, up to UGX 107 billion had been disbursed to 11,256 women groups benefiting over 135,000 Women.

The Auditor General in his report to parliament early this year, found that of the total 135,000 beneficiaries, only 4,185 women had benefited from capacity and skills development, translating to just 42 percent of the target 10,000 women. Reviewing the first five years of its implementation, the Auditor General opined that UWEP had been impinged by delays, limited focus on skills and poor coordination. 

Reacting to findings by the Auditor General that in implementing the program, the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development through the UWEP Technical Support Unit, failed to adequately plan and coordinate Women to access markets as well as promoting access to appropriate technologies, Ms. Masiko who heads the program acknowledged this gap, saying there were funding deficits from Government.

“Indeed there was that concern, and this is true because we were expected to get over UGX 500 billion for the five years. What was released was around 107 billion, so automatically, if you get less money and you have all these applications coming in, we could not go into those other objectives as much as we wanted. We need more funding for these programs, because without markets, even the many products produced out of the loans we give out sometimes do not access appropriate markets,” Ms. Masiko said.

Uganda’s struggle for gender equality

Uganda joined the world to mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday 8th March, 2022. This happened when Women in Uganda are still faced with vulnerabilities, stemming from negative norms, attitudes and practices inherent and deeply rooted within our social fabric, that continues to widen gender inequality.

In Uganda, Women are disproportionately represented among the poor, with the Uganda Gender Policy (UGP) of 2007 affirming that Women are much poorer than Men. This social inequality elicited Government intervention in 2015 through UWEP, whose fruits in championing Women financial independence, are yet to be realized given that Women, who form at least 52% of the 46 million population and form the bulk of labor force within the informal sector and unpaid care at home, continue to live within the margins of society.

Aisha Buyeka, a bogoya vendor inside Mbale main market, exhibits a delicious variety of local bananas cultivated on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, through which she provides for her family. Photo Credit: Okeya John.

UWEP sought to cure some of these historical and social imbalances. Last financial year, Government sunk 29 billion shillings into this welfare scheme for Women, targeting 41,102 participants from 2,604 women groups. The fund provides Women in groups of 10-15 members with interest-free credit of between 12.5 to 25 million shillings in a revolving fund basis. In the same period, UGX 923 million meant for the Women was unused, even when there’s clear need for access to credit among these groups.

Weighing in on the matter, Ms. Rita Aciro, the Executive Director of Uganda Women Network (UWONET), an advocacy group on Women rights and gender equality cogently argued that the affirmative action scheme through UWEP is necessary, and not a form of negative discrimination against Men, given the current social and historical inequalities pitted against Women by our society.

“We need to understand why affirmative action: our Constitution of 1995 provides for affirmative action under article 32 and 33. Affirmative action is meant to make good the wrongs to Women and girls due to historical, cultural or religious biases society had against women.  Affirmative action does not necessarily have to accrue to Women only, it can apply to anybody. Therefore, nobody should de-campaign when it is proposed to a particular group, you never know when you'll need it,” Ms. Aciro stated.

The Executive Director of UWONET holds that Uganda needs affirmative action, until society starts giving women, girls, boys and men equal opportunities within the socio-economic and political spheres of life, within the legal and policy regime. Ms. Aciro avers that the scope and reach of UWEP is narrow for meaningful impact, given the high number of Women living in poverty. She urges Government to devise sustainable mechanisms, to prevent beneficiaries of such programs from falling back to poverty.

“We have been socialized that it’s bad for Women to have money. Women do not own factors of production like land, capital and labor itself. You can see Women physically present, but do they have the human capital that is Informed and equipped to be utilized gainfully to empower them economically? So for me, if we’re going to have these programs like UWEP, it has to be a fund that is building onto something but not a fund that is starting up a process.”

Ms. Aciro and Ms. Grace Mukwaya, the Executive Director of Platform for Labor Action (PLA) – a Civil Society Organization focusing on promotion and protection of rights of marginalized workers – jointly expressed need to conscientize society, especially men, on the negative norms that demean women and girls. Although Ms. Masiko listed inroads made by the program towards Women economic empowerment through UWEP, the two concurred with studies that suggest UWEP could be burdening women rather than liberating them, as an unintended consequence of the program.

Ms. Aciro feared that some government programs keep Women in a vicious cycle of poverty, reasoning that many Men get laid back on family responsibility with false belief that their Women are now economically empowered. And For Ms. Mukwaya, reports of increased domestic violence between spouses over the UWEP funds are far too common, hence burdening Women the more. The controversy between the UWEP achievements as presented Ms. Masiko and the divergent viewpoints on its unintended consequences is a big news factor in journalism.

“Women need support in different ways. The theme for this International Women’s Day was breaking the bias. If we break the biases, women are able to participate. If they have wages, they can access employment, have social protection and enjoy rights to equal work for equal pay, they are able to really participate. That’s the support you want so that women are able to participate,” Ms. Mukwaya agitated during the Wizarts Space, underscoring the need for more support for Women empowerment.

She noted however, that Uganda being a patriarchal society, there’s need to integrate spouses in the design and implementation of Women empowerment programs, for Men to champion support for Women in Uganda’s development agenda, short of which, they will continue to see it as a threat and the programs are bound to fail.  

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