Sexism contributes to poor health outcomes for women

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Sexism in Ugandan society begins early and effects women throughout their lives. The consequences of inequality are a less-developed society, according to Prosper Byonanebye of Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET).

“For a school assignment, my daughter was asked who the head of her household was. She wrote, ‘mother’ and it was marked wrong,” Byonanebye said. “Other students wrote in the assignment that their father did cooking and cleaning in their homes and were marked wrong.”

Gabriel Amori, national coordinator of the Uganda Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by AIDS (UNERELA+), tries to educate religious leaders on the implications of negative cultural practices. (Bente Bouthier | The Media School)

These assigned gender roles have more devastating effects than lost marks in school.

“If sexism is a practiced part of culture, of course we will see it persist and affect women late into life,” Gabriel Amori of Uganda Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by AIDS (UNERELA+). “We never see women represented in the lower courts of Uganda.”

Women are also left vulnerable in marriages and at home.

“One particularly frustrating instance was when a woman was with a man for ten years,” said Byonanebye. “The man said, ‘I married you to have five children. You have done that now. Goodbye.’”

In these instances, women are poorly protected because they own little within the marriage. Sometimes the marriages are not official, so if a husband decides to “divorce” the woman, she has no claim to the children, according to Byonanebye.

The issues of women in Uganda are social, political, and economic, according to Amori.

It is women who are considered promiscuous in Ugandan society. “Adultery is committed by a woman, not a man,” said Byonanebye.

Men tend to be more secretive about their vulnerabilities and poor in their health seeking habits.

But this also leaves women’s health vulnerable.

Sarah* receives legal help from Reach out. She said her husband infected her with HIV and that when they separated, he refused to help her with their three children’s expenses.

“When I attempted to peruse him legally, he took my youngest daughter, who was three months old. He will not let me see her,” she said.

Sarah* stands on a balcony at Reach Out, a catholic nongovernmental organization. She receives antiretroviral medication (ARV) there for HIV. Reach Out gives her legal counsel to obtain custody of her youngest daughter, who was taken by her ex-husband. Sarah’s identity is being concealed so she can avoid discrimination and harassment. (Bente Bouthier | The Media School)

UGANET is fighting a part of the HIV prevention and Control Bill of 2014.

The law requires health workers to disclose HIV-positive patients’ status to anyone health workers deem close to them. UGANET is working to have that portion of the law overturned.

The law especially affects women, because they are the ones who get tested, according to Byonanebye.

“Over 95 percent of land in Kampala and Entebbe is registered in the names of men,” said Byonanebye. Kampala is the capital  of Uganda and Entebbe is another city 25 miles away.

When a Ugandan man writes wills or distributes property, they rarely include their wives or daughters, according to Amor.

Because daughters are expected to marry, there is no perceived need to give them any financial protection, according Byonanebye.

This stigma and lack of legal protection leave women more vulnerable as they age. If a women is sick or poor, the problem is exacerbated, according to Amori

When an elder woman is sick, the perception is there is little to gain from helping her.

“You may find that children ask if they should really go spending a lot of money on an elderly woman who doesn’t control any land or resources,” said Byonanebye. “So they don’t’ want to invest in her.”

In villages, a single elder woman faces stigma, especially if she is sick, according to Byonanebye.

“If an elderly woman has HIV or is sick, neighbors don’t understand she is positive because she entered elderly stages as single woman,” Byonanebye said. “Neighbors don’t understand what is weakening the woman’s health. They may look at her as bewitched.”

The best way to remedy deep-seated issues is through cultural and spiritual leaders, according to Amori.

Elders are the door way for cultural and spiritual leaders into a community, according to Amori.

Amori thinks sensitizing these leaders to negative social practices enables them to educate their villages.

Empowering young schoolgirls is another way to combat stigmas, according to Byonanebye.

“Parents tend to listen to their young children,” he said. “Children under 10 years tend to be dear to their parents. We encourage young girls to engage their fathers.”

Reach Out, a catholic NGO, has multiple locations in Kampala. The organization provides health and social services for people living HIV positive. (Bente Bouthier | The Media School)

[*Sarah is not her real name. Her identity is being concealed so she can avoid discrimination and harassment.]