Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Solar Suitcases bring joy to mothers and relief to health workers in Karamoja

Last week while on a UN Women funded trip to Karamoja to follow –up the progress on powering health facilities, I met a nursing officer Achech Rebecca at Rupa health Centre III and in the course of a brief conversation with her, I asked how many babies she had delivered.
“I have lost count of the babies that I have delivered because to me, it’s one of those things that you do so naturally when you go to work,” she said with a broad infectious smile.
Acech Rebecca/ Photo Stephen Ouma

Being the curious person that I am, I asked her if anything scared her when she’s delivering a child. Her answer: “I always pray that the solar power does not run out in the middle of a delivery.” 
Has it ever happened? I probe further.  Yes, and I used the small torch on my phone to complete the delivery which was a success. She replies with another smile.

When I asked her what inspired her into nursing, she was quick to say that she admired the nursing attire and had not only always wanted to see how mothers deliver but to help them do it. She is living her dream.

Acech is among the many dedicated health workers across Karamoja region who do not take this intervention of powering health facilities for granted. She is an ardent advocate for the expansion and promotion of solar energy in the primary health care units because she, like many of her colleagues, believes that more solar energy in the health sector can spur a revolution by boosting the standard and reliability of health delivery services in the country especially those areas that are not yet on the national power grid. She has worked in Karamoja before there was anything close to solar lighting and she knows what benefits solar has brought to not only mothers but health workers like her.
Solar Suitcases given by UNICEF through Doctors without Boarder- CUAMM have changed our lives here in Karamoja. More mothers are now coming to deliver at health centres. Which was not the case before. If Midwives use touches or phones to deliver women, they go to Traditional Birth Attendant. That is risky in case of a complication- Said Acech
When I joined the UN Women team for this trip, I had always considered solar in the context of electricity for homes and businesses and not child delivery in health centers. With only a solar suitcase, lives are transformed. This shows the massive potential solar energy has to help other areas of development. There is a clear business case for why solar is fast becoming a mainstream technology for providing power even in non-energy sectors like health and agriculture.

According to the Kotido district health Officer Phillip Olinga, the biggest hurdle in adopting solar power is the high upfront cost.  The total cost for setting up such a system estimated for a single community health centers is roughly $5000. An off grid health solar roof project in Karamoja could cost around $2500 - $3500. The grid is cheaper but it’s not an option in these remote locations of Karamoja.

  Dr. Sharif Nalibe the District health officer of Kabong said that while solar is the best solution for now, his advice to government and development partners is to look at wind energy as an alternative source of power in Karamoja where wind is a free and readily available resource.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Why the 16 days of activism against GBV should focus on Online Violence

While speaking to a peer last week about online spaces, she had this to say “I am no longer interested in online activities because I get threatened especially on twitter and I now feel so insecure”.  It was not the first time I was hearing such remarks especially from female colleagues. Once again I had been reminded about the realities of gender-based violence, but in different spaces; Online. The power dimensions online mirror the existing power structures in the real world where Power online, can represent power structures offline in patriarchal societies.

Over the years, the focus of gender-based violence has been offline and has responded to offline problems. However, with the rise in use and application of ICTs, there is a case for a paradigm shift in addressing violence globally as we gradually progress to fully- fledged digitized societies. Now with the annual 16 days of Activism against gender based violence first approaching (25th Nov- 15th Dec), the agenda has to widen to include solutions to online forms of violence against both women and men which come in different forms like; cyber-stalking, Cyber-bullying, online shaming, revenge pornography, blackmail, impersonation among many others. Online violence is a continuation of violence that affects disempowered groups offline mostly girls and women.

This year’s theme for the 16 days of activism against gender based violence “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for Al!” resonates with SDG 4, target (7) on access to quality and equitable Education for all; but with special focus on creating a culture of peace and non-violence which to me calls for the need for informal trainings on basic use and application of technologies, privacy, intellectual property rights and online security for many ignorant users of Internet services.
For an already marginalised group of people with the least access to affordable Internet and lower levels of education, online violence is making the voices of many women less heard as many opt to leave these spaces.

Gender discrimination in cyberspace is a reflection of society and as such Legislation against online harassment should be adapted with the government redefining this harassment. You cannot talk about Internet freedom without women in the conversation. Lots of online abuses directed towards women are rubbished or taken for satire, rumor & jokes. It’s critical to know when and where the line should be drawn? While it’s true that we are entitled to freedom of speech, it is not real if the freedom comes at the cost of women's right to safety.

A woman with a strong opinion online is bullied and seen as someone who can be asked to shut up or forced to leave the spaces. Not usually the case for men online. De-humanising language against women helps legitimise violence against them. In Uganda, we have seen female celebrities abused and later on blamed. "We have created an abusive society and gone ahead to normalize, regularize, and routinize online abuse; yet law enforcement in cyberspaces is still new to our country. We cannot continue having law enforcers utter things like “Online abuse is not real, that is virtual and cannot cause you any harm”.

For as long as girls and women are forced off the cyberspaces as a result of fear, we shall continue to miss out on important voices in society. Online violence is real, do not be a perpetuator and learn to speak out when attacked.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Selective Outrage is a danger to activism in Uganda

About a week ago after that awkward, annoying and humiliating scene on our Televisions and social media Timelines; the story of FDC’s Naigaga Fatuma who was harassed by Uganda police is no longer news to Ugandans. They have now moved on to attacking a couple of artists who dinned with the president and launched the song ‘TubongaNawe’ in support of his 2016 presidential elections. Regardless of how shameful and humiliating it was to watch Naigaga being undressed, everyone seems to have moved on, save for a few women activists who took to streets to peacefully match to parliament in solidarity with her but got interrupted. Then a couple of social media users who took to twitter and started a hashtag “#EndPoliceBrutalityUG”; tweeted for a couple of hours on 16th Oct and also moved on; I guess until another woman is stripped or embarassed. Let’s wait for it and see.

Many must now be thinking that I am undermining the efforts of those who took their time to condemn the uncalled for police acts; No, I am not; your gestures are all extremely important in pushing for freedoms. However, often times, activists in Uganda have been more reactive than pro-active. They have waited for events to unfold and be reported by mainstream media before they react to them. No body is setting the agenda and not many campaigns and activism causes have been consistent. And if they have, then the public definitely doesn’t know about their progress.

Picture via Washingtonpost
A case in point was when FDC’s Ingrid Turinawe was assaulted by the police in 2012 and there was a public outcry; a couple of weeks later, life was back to normal. Then the girl who was continuously raped by 3 Pakistani men in 2013, the outcry was even bigger. Many never heard the last of it; the little baby girl who was abused by a house help, then we had a media personality and musician who were both victims of revenge pornography and cyber bullying and later on blamed. The list is long. What ever happened to all these Ugandans, many don’t seem to know and no body questions until something similar happens again. Many Ugandan suffer injustices and no body talks about them let alone listens to them.

Where is the outrage when people die of hunger in Karamoja? When a sports coach slaps University students in a video recently shared by NBS TV that went  viral online? When every other week, a young Ugandan is either trafficked or is found dead somewhere in the U.A.E? Where is the outrage? Has freedom and activism been reduced to only what we think? ?  How can you advocate for change when you cannot be consistent with activism that can lead to that change?

The fact that our country is full of problems means that there are challenges to be confronted. It is only circumstances of pressure such as battles with police, questioning of politicians and being discriminated against that our hidden potential can be turned into actuality. Like Ghandi who started the Freedom movement in 1920, we need to be consistent with our activism. He experienced discrimination in South Africa in 1893 when he was pushed out of the train because he was non-white and was seated in the first class compartments but that only reinforced his fight for freedom.

If there should be an outcry in Uganda, it should be about all the injustices in society. From poor governance, abuse of office, nepotism, poor health and education services etc. Not out cries based on what we only watch and or read in mainstream media.  Without this consistency, we shall continue to only be up in arms over agendas set by the media.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cut demand and you will stop Female Genital Mutilation in Uganda

It was the very first of its kind, a half-marathon that attempted to engage, involve and educate the masses in Sabiny land about the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and by extension end the practice.  It took place on 19th September 2015 in Kapchorwa.
It was in Tartar Village in Kaptanya subcounty, Kapchorwa district that I met an elderly woman - Kokop Mwajuma a traditional surgeon; involved in the now outlawed Female Genital Mutilation, an initiation practice for young girls and women that involves cutting outer genitalia. Kokop was living with her grandson who takes care of her and ushers in guests who come to visit or interview her. She was upset, because her source of livelihood has been tampered with by the same government which she says sends people to question her.

Among the Sabiny community, FGM is seen as an initiation of girls into womanhood. Once cut, the girls are then deemed ready for marriage. Besides being a spiritual obligation, for Kokop, FGM was a business. She charged between 20,000 shillings (5 U.S. dollars) to 50,000 shillings (14 dollars) for every cut. She says banning it makes no sense because girls from Sabiny cross over to Kenya to get cut and come back proud and fulfilled. "The Kenyans get business and I don’t, When the law becomes tough, the tactics change", said Kokop who is struggling to breakaway from this practice.  Some of the dangers of FGM include excessive bleeding when not properly done and sharing of knives, which could cause HIV infections.

On December 10, 2009, the Ugandan Parliament passed a law banning the practice of female genital mutilation. The bill imposes harsh penalties for participation in the practice of FGM. A person convicted of the practice faces a sentence of up to ten years in prison. In the case of what is called aggravated FGM, when the practice causes death or disability or results in the victim's infection with HIV/AIDS, the punishment is life imprisonment. Anyone who provides aid or in any way takes part in the practice is liable, on conviction, to a prison term of up to five years.

However, despite the existence of this law, the practice continues, although silently among the sabiny. Asked why, Chemutai a teenage mother of 3 who was among those arrested for accepting to be cut said..... 
.....“it’s our culture and it’s who we are; besides, the wounds heal in less than a week. All we have to do is go for a PPF injection. It’s really not a big deal”
It was indeed surprising to learn from some of the sabiny people that they had no idea that a law banning FGM in Uganda had been passed. Some blamed their members of parliament for shying away from this sensitive issue. “No wonder they are not Circumcised” one declared.

UNFPA organized anti-FGM marathon in partnership with the Church of Uganda Sebei diocese and Kapchorwa Local Government leadership to support  Government efforts to eliminate FGM in the districts of Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween which are home to the Sabiny; as well as raise hope and protect the young girls from undergoing a harmful cultural practice.  The archbishop of the church of Uganda His Worship Stanley Ntagali was chief runner and while speaking to the masses said that the role of the church is crucial in changing mindsets and contributing to a paradigm shift to a change of culture. UNFPA’s Esperance Fundira said that ‘we can give up FGM without giving up our culture’.  UNFPA addresses FGM holistically by funding and implementing culturally-sensitive programmes for the abandonment of the practice, advocating for legal and policy reforms and building national capacity to stop all forms of FGM.

Re-known long distance runner & world champion Moses Kipsiro was there to support the cause. He spoke about the dangers of FGM and the need to empower the young men and women of Kapchorwa who are some of the best long distance runners the country has. Whereas religious leaders believed that involving the church is crucial in the fight of FGM, some Civil society activists advice that campaigns targeting FGM should be approached from a cultural perspective as opposed to a project angle that has to be ticked off a work plan.

‘Surgeons like Kokop accused the president for promising to give her a cow and a monthly allowance to keep her away from the practice; a promise he has never fulfilled. She said that “Museveni is good but a liar”. Asked if she would stop if the president fulfilled his promise; Her response was hilarious, she told me that her exceptional cutting skills make many young women seek her services, so she would not guarantee quitting.

The efforts of development agencies like UNFPA are commendable but one of the long-term solutions to ending FGM should focus on cutting its demand and this can only be achieved through educating of the girl child and  the communities that she lives in.