Authors: Winnet Shamuyarira and Cynthia Sono
(Photo credit: Cynthia Sono/WoMin. Community women from Kalangala)
16 Days of Activism - Ugandan Women's Resistance in the face of Violence
In early October 2023, WoMin, through the Violence against Women (VAW) Programme undertook an expedition to Uganda to better understand the lived realities of women in communities affected and impacted by large-scale extractive projects. We met with community women from three regions of Uganda including Kalangala, Karamoja and Central Uganda. Violence against women is endemic to areas with large-scale extraction, and these three are no different. As we sat in the sun listening to stories that women were sharing, we could not help but wonder whether the upcoming 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) holds any meaning at all for these women.
Over 25 November to 10 December 2023, the annual campaign focuses on GBV. During this time, organisations and communities across the globe amplify actions and strategies aimed at eliminated violence against women. As we listened to stories of how women have, and continue to endure violence, including brutal rape and killings of indigenous people by game rangers in Benet or the rape of women by mining company loaders in Karamoja, the relevance of the 16 Days campaign came sharply to our minds.
Deep stories of violence
“I am not sure whether I will live to see tomorrow. We are being killed like flies and no one seems to care. You may come back next year, and I will be dead! – Benet community member
The women shared traumatising incidents of violence perpetrated against communities by large mining, fishing, or palm oil plantation companies. The Benet land is the definition of picturesque with green rolling hills and azure blue skies on the horizon. Yet ironically it is for this natural beauty that the community of Benet has been suffering. The Benet people are pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, who have been fighting for their ancestral land since the British colonisers declared their territory as a forest reserve in the 1930s, robbing them of their land and their identity as indigenous people. In 1983, they were evicted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) after the area was declared a national park.
The women of Benet led a successful petition and legal case that won them a landmark ruling in October 2020. The Ugandan government was required to issue a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) granting the Benet people regulated access to various resources within the park, including cultural sites and cattle grazing areas. However, there is a continued violation of the MoU as the community experiences violent attacks from game rangers, who sometimes open direct fire at community members if they “trespass” onto what is considered game park land.
Indigenous lands overrun by vast palm oil plantations
The next part of our journey took us to the Kalangala islands where vast palm oil plantations cover land that was once filled with indigenous trees. Following the government-led National Oil Vegetable programme, supported by the World Bank and the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Ugandan government signed a public-private partnership agreement with Business and Industrial Development Corporations (BIDCO) to initiate an out-grower programme known as contract farming. It was supposed to provide income to the farmers by using their land to grow palm oil and sell the produce to BIDCO.
Instead, this programme has given way to land grabbing and deforestation in Kalangala, including the communities of Bumagi and Bwenderu. BIDCO replaced the indigenous trees in the area with palm oil trees, rendering the communities landless. The corporation also exploits them as plantation workers with workers receiving little or no benefit at all. BIDCO is notorious for its human rights violations, repressing the voices of those who dare speak out with many having been arrested and tortured.
These oppressive conditions have created a climate of fear and intimidation whereby the women of Bwenderu refused to be photographed or allow the meeting recorded. Some of them refused to even sign the attendance register despite the assurance that it would only be used internally at WoMin. All these women related stories of a violation of their rights and carry deep trauma. Some of them still work on the plantation, while some recently resigned. One of them was forced to carry a hundred kilograms of load on her shoulders causing major damage to her back.
There was a palpable fear in the small chapel where we held the meeting. The women were hesitant to even say their names much less talk about the issues. Some however were brave enough to relate the violations perpetrated by BIDCO, ranging from a lack of protective gear to no leave days including no sick leave, only two weeks of maternity leave with very little pay, and yet no one is allowed to complain about better work conditions.
The Bumagi women related how some of the workers of the plantation would abuse children and women and yet there is no recourse for justice. Even if they do report it to the police, it is not taken seriously. The perpetrators often just leave the place. BIDCO seems to be aware of these cases but does nothing to address the situation.
Fisher communities evicted and harassed
The Bujumba community also forms part of the Kalangala inhabitants. Originally fisherfolk, fishing net sorters and fishing equipment maintainers, they were prevented by the government from fishing. Some owned or operated boats but now the boats are gone, destroyed because they did not meet the criteria to fish in the lake. The store owners by the lake now stay in make-shift houses doing odd jobs when they can. The community has been reduced to doing menial labour or whatever is available to survive.
The women came to the meeting and shared stories of eviction and harassment. Their stories are again evidence of an uncaring government. The imposition of unjust rules gave way to their boats being destroyed nonchalantly. Instead of telling them to fix the boats to meet the criteria, the army destroyed the boats as they were short by several inches for the required length. The eviction was coupled with torture. Some of the men were tortured with their testicles hammered which caused permanent physical problems. As they put it, “this affected the state of intimacy at home”.
The women left the shores with their families. At some point they were allowed to go and fish again but who can afford 7 million UGX for a boat? They don’t have the finances for new boats and equipment to return to fishing.
Building women’s collective power, protection and resistance
As we listened to the stories of women, we were constantly reminded why the work we put in to build women’s collective power to challenge the capitalist system is important. We are also reminded of the power of resistance and the need to think critically about building collective protection mechanisms for women as they continue to resist. For women in these communities, resistance is not an option, but a way of life. More critically, we are reminded of the need to create collective spaces for healing, as trauma is deep seated in all the communities we visited.
The resistance from the women, as a response to the violence, manifests itself in many forms. From the Benet women returning to the forest area wearing an Amnesty International branded t-shirt, the front of it screaming ‘human rights’; the Bwenderu women talking to the union officer about the issues they faced while employed at BIDCO plantation; the Bumagi women continuing to talk to activists about their land issues; the Bujumba women coming together giving support to each other to process their trauma; to the Kassanda miners convening as an association to continue and talk about their issues, the women continue to fight back.
All of them showed up to the meetings we convened, meeting us strangers, entrusting us with their stories, and allowing us in their spaces. This is a sign of not giving up; this is a sign of exercising their power of choice to associate and assemble; this is a sign of resistance. In the face of real danger and risks, they danced and sang loudly to welcome us, sit with us, and tell us their stories. In the face of poverty, they offered us food.
As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism, let us be moved and motivated by the brave women who are rising up against these particular forms of violence and instead are proposing alternative solutions that uplift their lives and communities.