Africa, Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

UGANDA: Radio Drama Strengthens Women’s Voices

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Oct 1 2008 (IPS) - Fifteen-year-old Taboni’s parents are in a bind. Their daughter has been raped by the commandant of the squalid internally-displaced persons camp they call home, and they do not know what to do.

The Open Cage drama series encourages women to speak out. Credit:  Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

The Open Cage drama series encourages women to speak out. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

The implications of reporting the camp commandant, M R Otim, to the police could be grave. Like the 1.4 million other internally displaced persons, Taboni’s parents have been impoverished, displaced, and disempowered by 20 years of conflict in northern Uganda. The camp commandant wields enormous power over their lives.

Debate rages in the household – Taboni’s father and aunt decide not to press a case, but instead discuss the possibility of Otim taking Taboni as a wife.

This particular drama is unfolding on the radio in northern Uganda, part of the Open Cage drama series broadcast in local languages on private stations in the region. But the story – written by local women directly from their experiences of life in this region – is as vivid and complex as the long wait for lasting peace between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government.

The drama continues: Taboni’s mother disagrees with the decision. Instead, she takes her daughter for an HIV test. Her worst fears are confirmed – Taboni is positive. The grief-stricken mother returns home to break the news to the rest of the family.

The whole family breaks down in tears; it feels like the end of the road has come for Taboni.

The family takes the case to the police. But according to Ugandan legal procedures, a report from a doctor registered by the police is crucial evidence in a rape case. But the doctor demands more money than the family can afford to carry out a medical examination on the rape survivor.

Radio was chosen because it is the most accessible, affordable and widespread medium of spreading information in Uganda – and indeed across Africa. According to a 2007 report by research firm the Steadman Group, while 2 out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa read newspapers, and 3 out of 10 people watch TV, 9 out of 10 listen to the radio.

Open Cage began with a “writeshop” of 15 local women who came together to turn real-life stories into broadcast-ready scripts under the guidance of US-based International Women’s Tribune Centre.

Beatrice Birungi, one of the members of the core team, says she is proud that what started with a small group of about fifteen women is spreading out to a wider community and creating an impact.

“The idea was to put into action the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 about women’s contribution to peace-building. We resolved to make a difference through a radio drama series.”

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 calls for increasing the number of women at decision-making level in national, regional institutions involved in preventing managing and resolving conflicts.

In Uganda, as in so many other African countries experiencing conflict, women did not start the war, but they are the most affected by it. Yet little space is given to them to lead the search for solutions.

Margaret Sentamu, executive director of the Uganda Media Women’s Association, says women in conflict zones are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. She says this form of violence often goes unreported. Women have sharply limited opportunities to seek redress, since perpetrators are often connected to the weak law enforcement authority that characterizes conflict areas – or are law enforcement agents themselves.

The radio drama series has become a voice for women affected by war. An estimated 100,000 women and men in conflict areas are glued to weekly radio broadcasts featuring strong, outspoken women claiming their rights.

The series encourages women to address sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict regions while at the same time highlighting the role of women in peace building and decision-making processes.

Joan Akubu, a native of northern Uganda who also participated in the making of the programmes, says she is proud that she has contributed to peace in her motherland through drama. “One of the characters that I can’t forget is Nakiru who was forced to marry her former teacher by the poor parents, just so they can get cows for dowry.”

She says listeners identify strongly with the characters because the dramas are all drawn from real-life stories.

In the Open Cage story line, Taboni undergoes counseling and later forms a community-based organisation that works towards building peace in her community; women inspired by her go on to bring peace to the whole of northern Uganda.

One can only hope that life in the war-torn north will imitate art in the near future.

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