“Mwana muke hana haki yake! Mwana muke hana haki yake” Rebecca Chepkateke repeatedly said with anguish in her voice. “Mwana muke hana haki yake!!” is a Kiswahili expression loosely translated to “Women have no rights!” This is a statement frequently used against women in Amudat district who go to report offences to community leaders. Rebecca is the Chairperson of the Karita Womens Network, a loose coalition formed under the Women Networks for Gender Equality and Women Empowerment project supported under the Spotlight Initiative.
Rebecca’s vibrant and assertive nature was one of the reasons why she was elected by her fellow women from seven groups brought together to facilitate movement building and advocacy in their respective villages. This was done after several trainings and orientation meetings organized by Karamoja Women’s Umbrella Organisation; National Association of Women’s Organisations in Uganda (NAWOUs) member and implementing partner in Karamoja.
The pain in Rebecca Chepkateke’s eyes is visible, the anguish and frustration evident with every gesture as she tells tales of the struggle her and several women experienced during the lockdown enforced to curb the spread of COVID 19. As she sits with women from Ashiokanian village, she has a lot to share about how she coordinated with village health teams, NAWOU field staff and other women activists to aid women in her village seeking justice and support to access health facilities during the COVID19 lockdown. According to Merab Alosikin the NAWOU programme Officer, Rebecca referred 5 GBV cases and 2 maternal related cases directly to her.
“Women have suffered the most during this period. With the closure of markets and ban on public transport, they had no way of selling their produce or conducting their businesses,” she narrates. With the little or no income for basic needs, homesteads became battlefields for husbands and wives. According to Rebecca, “Domestic violence has increased, tremendously in Karita.”
Thirty-five-year-old Susan Chepsekek was on the verge of committing suicide when Rebecca assisted her departure from a twelve-year abusive marriage. Countless trips to the police to report assault after assault yielded no result for Susan. The obstruction of justice by some community leaders like Local Council (LC1s) has become an emerging issue in rural areas. Police and community leaders connive to oppress the survivors by blatantly refusing to help them or mockingly remarking “If I’m doing the same things to my wife that you are reporting, how do you expect me to arrest your husband?” Statements like this make survivors lose hope and continue to suffer in silence.
Rebecca offered safety for Susan and her children when her husband threatened to kill her, prior to Rebecca’s intervention Susan sought refuge in a tree for an entire night. Rebecca sought advice from the Spotlight supported NAWOU Programme Officer to assist the specifics of the case. The Programme Officer in turn tried to follow up with the police to resolve the issues between Susan and her husband. Currently speaking, the case is on file. This is one of the three cases that are in the process of being resolved by police. However, two of the reported cases have been put on hold because the perpetrators fled.
Through strengthening the capacities of women networks and organizations and forming safe spaces, women are organizing and using their voice to challenge traditional norms and practices that have rendered them less powerful. Most importantly, women like Rebecca are engaging with authorities to protect women and girls from violence and risks associated with their sexual reproductive health rights. It is from these spaces that the women get a chance to share and remind each other about the importance of having safe deliveries and ensuring their daughters are not subjected to harmful practices like female genital mutilation and early sexual relations including forced marriage.
As a leader, Rebecca keeps her ears on ground to ensure that women are supported to access services. She recounts how with the help of the Village Health Team (VHT) nurse, Peninah Chepchonyir, Rebecca helped a 19-year-old girl give birth. Due to the ban on public transport, they were unable to access a boda-boda to help them transport her so she gave birth by the roadside on the way to the health center. Some of the rural areas had only one ambulance serving over 3 sub counties covering a distance of over 60 kilometers from Amudat Town Council and extensively distant from health centers.
Amudat covers 1,615km² but has only 3 facilities at the level of Health Centre (HC) III or above with Karita having been upgraded to a HC IV only last month. The available ambulance cannot traverse all the 3 sub counties to rescue expectant mothers. With the existence of poor road networks within the region, it is no surprise that some women are forced to have unsafe child birth at home because available ambulances would not reach them on time. Gaps like this show the lack of preparedness to address health emergencies, which in the long run puts women and girl’s lives at risk. Which poses the question: what happens to the women who have no Rebecca’s within their communities?
Rebecca’s fighting for the women to rise above oppressive norms has not left her free of bad blood. A brewing enmity has sprouted between her and some community leaders because of the cases she reports. Rebecca fears for her political career as she wants to contest for the post of Woman Councilor. She is aware that men may oppose her, as she is actively involved in the process of reporting GBV cases committed by male community members. This however is not deterring her from her path and she is more determined to fight for girls and women’s rights.
By cascading women’s networks to grassroots level, there is hope that all women from different backgrounds and status will ably claim and defend their rights and make government more accountable to them. The work championed by Rebecca and other women activists during the lockdown is proof that women’s organizations and the women’s movement building (Pillar 6) are a critical factor in influencing authorities to take action on protection of women and girls especially in contexts where gender equality and women’s empowerment are overlooked in policy making and implementation. This is one of the key priorities under the Spotlight initiative to End Violence Against Women and Girls.