Forgive me my sisters and women friends, but this year I am not burning with passion about the International Women’s Day. Oh, yes! It is a great moment for us to celebrate and reflect on the journey travelled thus far. We have come a long way from the time when only males, born from a common womb with women, got formal western education and the opportunities that followed.
The women reading this note are living examples of the great strides made. Millions and millions of professional women, at the top of their game, inching closer and closer to pay equity, make one smile with gratitude to those who went into the trenches and fought for the rights of women. Why, my generation has witnessed women ministers in governments, including prime ministers and presidents and their deputies! You know the story – justly celebrated and held high as evidence of the change that started with those first protests a century ago.
I salute the many women who have struggled and effected change. I especially honour those of you my friends who have dedicated your lives to the struggle for the liberation of women from cultural and religious shackles that have been, and remain, the root of the oppression. Not for nothing do you toil.
Yet I don’t feel as upbeat as I ought to be. My problem is what I see every time I visit my homeland. During my recent five-week visit to Uganda, I travelled up and down the hills of Kigezi, observing, recalling and reflecting on the state of the women in my community. I did not like what I saw. They still carry a heavier burden than ever before but own little, if anything. You see, this thing called alcohol is decimating lives and ripping up families.
Silently, behind the veil of smiles and laughter, the women are hurting. They till the land, a job that has been theirs since their early childhood. They feed the country. They make the money, but do not own it. The men claim it because they are the owners, you see. The culture tells them so. The women, having made the money, must beg from their husbands. The men, many, many men, loiter the streets and the trails, with booze-filled sachets their companions.
No, I did not just hear stories about it. I saw and heard it myself. The women – many of them – freely shared their stories, peppered with laughter, as is the tradition of the African woman in pain and despair. And, as always, when challenged to explain why they must beg from their husbands, the women said: “T’ezaabo shi?” (Is it not their money?). The Stockholm Syndrome!
Perhaps it would all be “fine” if these women did not also carry the chronic burden of bodies whose wombs have carried many babies, all in a short period, and their breasts provided life to their helpless and fragile offspring. The joy of childbirth is twinned with devastation of young women’s health – chronic anaemia, malnutrition, injured birth canals and urinary tracts, post-partum depression, sleep deprivation……….. the list is long.
Two moons ago, I visited my relatives in Kahondo ka Byamarembo and shared precious moments with my female first cousins. Three marvelous sisters – K, K, and B. Beautiful women – inside and out. Brilliant women, living in the villages of southern Kigezi, a world far, far removed from yours and mine. They shared their stories with me – briefly, of course – and left me in that zone between joy and tears.
It is these women I am thinking about today. They probably do not know that it is their day. Their routine ticks along. Their private angst and pain unknown to us. They deserve better. We can make it better for them – not through legislation (there is plenty of that) – but through action. Less greed at the top. Share the resources, so that my diabetic cousin in Kahondo can access safe health care.
Even as we celebrate the achievements, there is that bothersome figure of women dying due to pregnancy and childbirth. Hasn’t changed much – at least 6,000 per year in Uganda. And that is not the worst in Africa. And it does not tell the full story of the burden of childbirth of the African woman.
Oh, yes, health care! Three years ago, our first cousin, another beautiful woman called Kyamugarika, died in her home in Kitohwa, Ndorwa, Kigyezi. She need not have died, had she had access to emergency health care. She and thousands of women who die in Africa every year, felled by treatable illnesses. They do not dream of being flown to India for treatment. Even getting to the hospitals a few miles away is often unaffordable. Some must stay home and till the land and feed the men and raise the children and die prematurely. That’s their fate in a world with unprecedented prosperity.
It starts when they are young. Unknown numbers quit school because they lack sanitary pads for their menstrual periods. Yes, a normal physiological event is a curse for many, their fate sealed in blood, even before they embark on the burdens of womanhood.
Celebrate the day, yes. But do so with humility, for the destination remains very distant. For the majority.