In many countries of the world, women are poorer and are marginalized compared to the men. The earliest Women’s Day was observed in New York in February 1909. On March 8th 1917, a demonstration of the women working in the textile factories in the then Russian Empire, over food shortages and a weak economy sparked off the Russian Revolution. A week later, Tsar Nicholas 11 of Russia abdicated and the women won their rights to vote.
At the first UN women’s conference held in Mexico in 1975, the United Nations declared 1975-1985 as the Women’s decade. It was to draw attention to the plight of women and to focus on policies and issues that would improve their status in the world. It also adopted 8th March as the International Women’s Day.
The day serves to recognise the women and girls contribution towards the development and progress of society. It also serves to acknowledge the achievements made and how far women still have to go in the battle of equal rights. In Uganda, the day was first officially celebrated in 1984, a year before the end of the UN Decade for women. The conference to mark the end of the UN Women’s Decade and to chart the way forward was held in Nairobi, Kenya July 1985. Women delegations from 160 countries in the world converged in Nairobi. Surprisingly, I was included in the Uganda delegation as a medical doctor at the eleventh hour. Women have been graduating as medical doctors in Uganda, since 1959!
I was the youngest member of our delegation. A military coup occurred in Uganda during the three weeks we were away. The Obote 11 government was overthrown by a faction of the army headed by Brig Bazilio Okello and six months later, the National Resistance Army commanded by Yoweri Museveni toppled Okello’s government.
When the dust settled, a few of us lobbied the new National Resistance Movement government for a Ministry of Women in Development to drive the agenda of empowering women to actively participate in the development of Uganda and to fight for their rights. Since women’s health and development feed each other, I organized a group of Women doctors around Kampala to establish the Association of Uganda Women Doctors .Our main objective was to promote and protect the health of women and children and the general population. We strongly believed that women had to be healthy to participate fully in development.
I celebrated the International Women’s Day, 8th March 2020 , a day early with the young medical students at Makerere University Teaching Hospital, Mulago. The students organized some activities to mark the day under the theme: The Woman Within. The activities included aerobics and Salsa and a panel discussion about the Women Doctors’ Association, etiquette, entrepreneurship and relationships.
Then on Sunday , I chose to attend the Old girls-led worship service at my old school, Gayaza High school. The singing, the praise and thanksgiving was comforting to all of us after last Friday’s fire that gutted Corby house . The Lord of the storm was in our midst.
At home, my octogenarian mother celebrated the day watching the official government celebrations in Mbale, about 225 kilometres northeast of Kampala. The activities organized under the theme: Celebrating 25 years of the 1995 Constitution, were to celebrate the women and their contribution to the development of our country. The 1995 constitution made women and men equal before and under the law and entitled to all the rights and freedoms in it. All in all, some achievements have been made but still there is a huge gap between policy and practice.
My mother watched in fascination, pausing only to pick water or fresh fruits from the refrigerator or use the bathroom. The degenerative arthritis has slowed down her movements but she still has the will to struggle against it. Currently, among the things she looks out for on the television are: the consecration of a Catholic bishop, the church services celebrating the Kabaka’s coronation anniversary and birthday and the Women’s Day Celebration. She is one woman who struggled to find her sense of autonomy by committing to her children, work and belief system but still remained feminine.
At 12 noon, I found her glued to the television watching the march -past parade led by the women in the Army and Police. A number of speeches followed while I went in and out of the sitting room doing my usual chores. It did not end until twenty minutes to 4pm! She called me out loud to watch the grand finale of the celebrations: the presentation of medals to honour 82 women for their distinguished service to our nation.
“ Do you know any of these women being recognised today?”she asked.
I laughed, “Mama, I’ve been away for more than two decades, I ‘d not know any of the young officers who have come up through ranks.’’
I listened more carefully. At least I knew Angelina Wapakhabulo, Lydia Wanyoto, Tsekooko and Beatrice Namukabya.
A Message alert signal led me to check my phone. It was from Faith, a classmate in Gayaza High School. She is an engineer married in Kenya. She was informing me that her mother was among those being honoured .
I sat tight and waited . Mrs. Miriam Lumonya ‘s name was read out , unfortunately I did not see her join the group. As the Coronavirus has taken over our lives, there were no handshakes with the President or among the women themselves.
“ Does anyone ever remember to honour in some way the women in the villages? They ‘re the architects of our communities. They give until they can give no more.”
“ I ‘ve no idea but I ‘d think that each district would honour its own heroines.”
I understood my mother’s concern for the women deep in the rural areas of Uganda. 70% of Ugandan women live in the rural areas, starting their day at 5am and ending it 11pm!
Our patriarchal society has preordained them to being the primary caregivers- they take care of their husbands, children, the elderly and the sick. They are so consumed by this role that they forget to take care of themselves. They have little power, authority and they undervalue themselves. They tend to sacrifice their autonomy to relationships.
In this state , they can never find their unique rhythm, their wisdom or their sense of what is uniquely theirs to give. They cannot factor their own needs into the network of caring relationships. They badly need help to find the balance between responsibility for others and responsibility to oneself.
To me, these are the unsung heroines of the Women’s Day and the best one known to me is my mother!
My mother lost her father at a very tender age , she had one big sister and a younger brother. They grew up with their mother who refused to remarry into the husband’s family as the culture dictated. She instead committed to her children. The elder sister walked about three kilometres to the nearest Catholic school of the area. Recognizing that my mother was too small to walk that journey, my grandmother pleaded with the headmaster of the nearby Protestant school to take on her daughter. It was done but it was unheard of at that time!
A Catholic priest from the Lugazi Diocese was on his routine tour of the parish when he was told of a Catholic girl attending a Protestant school. Father Bohn talked to my grandmother( through an interpreter) and persuaded her to allow her daughter to join the Catholic boarding primary school of Mt. Saint Mary’s Namagunga. The Irish missionary nun , Mother Mary Kevin Kearney ( 1875- 1957)had in February 1942, opened the school to promote the education of girls. She wanted to increase the opportunities and help them lead better lives in our patriarchal society. She also believed that if these educated girls grew up and married educated Catholic men , they would bring up Catholic children.
My mother spent six years in Mother Kevin’s school then joined Nsambya Catholic Nursing and Midwifery school for three years. The school had also been started by Mother Mary Kevin since she believed that Uganda needed its own teachers and nurses. The midwives would reduce the maternal and infant deaths.
My mother completed midwifery and was planning to take up Nursing after two years but then my father appeared on the scene. Recognizing that my father was much older than my mother, my grandmother was reluctant to give away her daughter.
” My daughter needs a cushion to fall back on. No one knows what the future holds.”
My mother worked for three years then out of my father’s persistence, grandmother blessed their union. They had six of us and we were what I would call a happy family.
Then thirteen years later, without any warning, my mother left home and went back to work as a midwife.That is what she wanted for her life. Probably she found her identity in work. My father never understood why she had traded-off her easy life for a working one!
For thirty years she worked in several maternity centres in the central region. She worked with passion, took opportunities to train and grow. She rose through the ranks. She worked for more than ten years at her last station, Nakifuma, 26 kilometres northeast of Mukono.
At one time , she had delivered most of the children of the village. It earned her a new name :Omuzaalisa we Nakifuma ( the midwife of Nakifuma) and it earned her a lot of respect and free gifts. Her Maternity unit became a teaching centre for the Lugazi area.
Two weeks ago, I met Dr. Adam Kimala, one of her supervisors , he was full of praise for her.
My happiest moment was in 1982 when I was a first year Postgraduate student in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the University Teaching hospital, Mulago. A young woman was referred to us from Nakifuma maternity centre because she was bleeding in her late pregnancy. We quickly operated on her, delivered a normal baby and saved the mother. I recognised my mother’s handwriting on the referral form! By then things were operating relatively well, there was a functional referral system; one ambulance served four clinics in the district. My mother was extremely proud of being a member of a functional health care system.
I asked her about her concerns at the present time.
She lives near the Kawempe Referral Women’s hospital and her niece works there as a senior midwife. The niece has told her that the patients overwhelm the number of staff.
My mother wonders why many women are being delivered by Caesarian section and that a number of these mothers and the babies die. The fact that a number of women still deliver unassisted by health workers and that every day, 16 women die in Uganda from pregnancy and childbirth –related causes , nags her conscience.
The teenage pregnancies also concern her. She begs the adults to allow these girls to become adults before they become mothers.
The last time she visited Nakifuma maternity centre, it was a rundown place. She is not likely to go back.
She has a great sense of radical thankfulness and celebration of her life; she mothered seven children, committed to midwifery, saving women’s lives over thirty years and was able to be both true to herself and to commit to the things and people she loves. She has remained a staunch Catholic and feels that she has in her own way played a role in raising the status of women in society like her teacher:Mother Mary Kevin.
She remains my unsung heroine.
“ A woman becomes better at multitasking when she becomes a mother.”– Anonymous
Has this post helped you to see how in your own way you can assist the woman in the rural area balance her responsibility to others with her responsibility to herself?