Grassroots women leaders provide a critical link between survivors and services
AMUDAT DISTRICT, Uganda - “Mwana muke hana haki yake! Mwana muke hana haki yake,” says Rebecca Chepkateke with anguish. A Kiswahili expression that means “women have no rights,” she’s heard this phrase repeated too many times to women in the Amudat district when they attempt to report gender-based violence (GBV) to community leaders.
Ms. Chepkateke is the Chairperson of the Karita Women’s Network, a coalition formed under the Spotlight Initiative-supported Women Networks for Gender Equality and Women Empowerment project. Assertive and vibrant, Ms. Chepkateke was elected Chairperson of the Network by women from seven groups who were brought together to strengthen the advocacy of women in their respective villages. Training and orientation for more than 35 women in five sub-counties in Amudat district was organized by Karamoja Women’s Umbrella Organization, a women’s network under the National Association of Women’s Organizations in Uganda (NAWOU).
Ms. Chepkateke’s pain and frustration is visible as she recounts the struggles that women have experienced during lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19. “Women have suffered the most during this [lockdown] period,” she says. “With the closure of markets and ban on public transport, they had no way of selling their produce or conducting their businesses.” With little or no income for basic needs, homes have become battlefields for husbands and wives, she says. According to Ms. Chepkateke, “Domestic violence has increased tremendously in Karita.”
During this period, Ms. Chepkateke has coordinated with village health teams, NAWOU field staff and other activists to ensure that women in her village who experience violence can access justice and health services. According to NAWOU Programme Officer Ms. Alosikin, Ms. Chepkateke referred five GBV cases to police for handling and linked two expectant mothers to health facilities between March and July 2020. Ms. Alosikin follows up the cases with health facilities and police to ensure women receive the services they need.
Linking survivors with services, one woman at a time
Clare* 35, was on the verge of committing suicide when Ms. Chepkateke helped her to leave an abusive 12-year marriage. Countless trips to the police to report her husband’s violence had yielded no results for Clare. Police and other leaders would sometimes blatantly refuse to help or mockingly remark, “If I’m doing the same things to my wife, how do you expect me to arrest your husband?” recalls Ms. Chepkateke.
After Clare spent the night in a tree because her husband threatened to kill her, Ms. Chepkateke took Clare into her own home. She then worked closely with the NAWOU Programme Officer to follow up with police and ensure Clare’s case was not dismissed. The case is currently under investigation and Clare has been able to return home after the house was abandoned by her husband.
First point of contact
Ms. Chepkateke is often the first point of contact for women needing assistance, providing a critical link between survivors and the services they need. She recounts how one night during lockdown, public transport closures prevented an expectant mother from reaching a health centre. Instead, the 19-year-old went into labour by the side of the road. Acting quickly, Ms. Chepkateke was able to call a Village Health Team nurse who was able to deliver the baby safely.
Poor road networks, few health centres and a single ambulance shared between three sub-counties mean that many women in Amudat are forced to give birth at home without a trained attendant. Gaps like this put the lives of women and girls at risk, begging the question: what happens to women who have no Rebecca to call?
The road ahead
Ms. Chepkateke now hopes to become Woman Councillor in Karita Sub-County, a position that would help her strengthen legislation that protects women from violence. By continuing to expand women’s networks at grassroots level, women from different backgrounds are able to defend their rights and make the government more accountable to them. The work championed by Ms. Chepkateke and other women activists during the lockdown is proof that women’s organizations and movements are critical in influencing authorities to take action.
By Fionah Agaba Barbra and Eva Sibanda
*Names have been changed to protect survivors.