Hilda Tadria got to work early on educating women. She was just a schoolgirl when she began tutoring women twice her age in proper hygiene and literacy skills. Despite decades of experience, however, she’s still sometimes shocked by how deeply gender inequality is embedded in her native Uganda.
In 2008, Tadria started Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women (MEMPROW), through which she facilitates empowerment workshops with young Ugandan women. At one such workshop at a high school in northwestern district of Nibee, she heard the boys issue complaints against her work.
They said that Tadria’s workshop had led to “divorces” at the school — or rather, that girls were breaking up with boys after attending MEMPROW’s self-esteem and rights’ awareness program.
“For me, that blew my mind,” Tadria told ThinkProgress. “I had never heard of it — that in the school, these boys can assume that these girls are their wives, because of course they are doing everything for them. They wash their clothes, they give them sex whenever they need it…so when the girls started dropping the boys, the boys complained that MEMPRO is causing divorce in the school.”
Although the sense of ownership the boys felt surprised her, Tadria has become accustomed to girls’ lack of empowerment — and has noted how quickly they stand up for themselves after she informs them of their right to say no to sexual advances or unfair expectations because of their gender. She believes that grassroots level work like this is essential to ending gender-based violence, and traveled to Washington from Kampala to urge lawmakers to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) which was re-introduced to Congress for the fifth time in March. If passed, IVAWA would ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment are factored into U.S. aid delivery programs to both government and NGOs like MEMPROW.
Tadria sees passing the bill is an obligation for U.S. lawmakers.
“The United States packages itself as the leader [in promoting] democracy and rights,” she said. “Why would they then not be interested in being the lead on violence against women?”
As a longtime feminist and activist, however, Tadria attributes the delay to one thing: patriarchy.
“Women’s rights take very long everywhere. There is a common cause of why women and men are not equal, whether it’s in the United States, England, or Africa,” she said. “There is one underlying structural cause. That’s why a law on violence against women in the U.S. will take as long as a [similar] law in the Ugandan Parliament.”
“It’s not discouraging,” she said with the assurance that comes from decades of experience. “That’s actually how human rights activism goes. You don’t always get it the first time.”
“I think [bills like IVAWA] sometimes suffer from apathy and invisibility not necessarily opposition particularly with lots of pressing domestic concerns,” Timi Gerson of the American Jewish World Service said in a phone interview from Capitol Hill where she was overseeing lobbying efforts by women’s rights activists from around the world, including Tadria.
While she commends the Obama administration’s efforts to address gender equality and women’s rights in its foreign policy and aid contributions, Gerson believes that passing IVAWA is essential to ensure this work is codified into law.
President Obama has thrown his support behind IVAWA, which Gerson applauds.
“[I]t should not be just this administration’s policy, but the policy of the U.S. government in general regardless of administration that this issue is a top-tier diplomatic and development issue,” she said.
That sustained effort will help ensure that work like Tadria’s can have a sustained impact, since IVAWA will include a provision to provide funding to NGOs, and not just feed it into government coffers around the world.
“Governments change in these countries the same way that they change here and if you want the work to be sustainable,” Gerson said, “then look to the community level — those people aren’t going anywhere.”
And organizations like MEMPROW are often more informed of how best to address the needs of individual communities.
Tadria started MEMPROW after completing a doctorate degree from the University of Minnesota. If she was able to achieve so much, it was because of the support of her parents, she said.
Her own mother wasn’t so lucky.
In 1941, Tadria’s mother went from being a student at one of the best schools in the country to being a bride — all because her husband’s family dropped off a few cows to her family as part of a proposal. Although her husband was rather enlightened on gender equality, the marriage meant that Tadria’s mother had to drop out of school.
Early marriages are still widely practiced in Uganda. According to UNICEF, nearly 40 percent of Ugandan girls are married and one-third become pregnant before they turn 18. Those trends don’t bode well for girls’ education. While 95 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school, less than one fifth of them make it to the secondary school level.
A lack of education about sex certainly doesn’t help.
Tadria says she’s come across a lot of harmful myths about pregnancy, for instance, through engaging with girls in high schools and universities.
“One of [the myths] is you don’t get pregnant when it’s your first time, or you don’t pregnant when you have sex when you’re standing, or you don’t get pregnant after you wash with orange juice,” she said. “So we’ve actually talked to a lot of girls who’ve gotten pregnant and what they tell us is, ‘I don’t know how it happened.’”
Before she begins to teach girls about safe sex, she introduces notions of self-respect and leading discussions on basic rights which she said are often novel concepts for young women in rural Uganda where she does much of her work.
“A lot of girls are not aware that their body belongs to them,” Tadria explained. “The messaging to them is when you grow up, you get married and say yes to whatever your husband says, and in the meanwhile you say yes to what your father says, to what your brothers say, and maybe then hopefully what your mother says.”
It’s her own understanding of the issues the girls she works with face that helps her to best address their needs — and to keep doing so year after year.
“What drives me is I know that my life, at one stage, was the same as those girls I work with,” Tadria said. “I know that change is possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. That’s the message I give to girls. I walked to school like you without shoes. I went to school and sometimes my lunch was packed in a banana leaf just like yours, but look where I am. What drives me is knowing there is a better life for those girls.”
Pointing to large-scale protests against gender based violence from Nairobi to Delhi Tadria said, “I think it is a unique moment [for women’s rights].”
She hopes that American legislatures will “show leadership” and decide to act in this moment by passing IVAWA — and supporting the work of women’s rights activists like herself.
“We hope it will pass this time,” she said. “But even if it doesn’t, we’ll be back.”