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Q&A: Women’s Empowerment: ‘Men Are Interested’

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi interviews CHRIS BARYOMUNSI, Ugandan member of parliament

ENTEBBE, Uganda, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - A trident of gender legislation will be debated in Uganda’s parliament in November: the Marriage and Divorce Bill, the Domestic Violence Bill and the Female Genital Mutilation Bill.

One of the voices expected to be heard backing the bills is that of a man: Chris Baryomunsi is the vice chairperson of the parliamentary committee on social services and well-known in Uganda for his defence of women’s rights.

He argues that a paradigm shift is needed if gender equality and women’s empowerment is to be achieved. In his view, the term “gender” was largely understood to mean women, excluding men from a movement for women’s rights. Messages of gender equality, he says, must be packaged to convince men to become involved and participate in the changes.

Baryomunsi participated in a two-day workshop at the end of September intended to enlist men as partners to advocate for the proposed bills.

The workshop was organised by the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) in partnership with Uganda’s ministry of gender, the United Nations Development Fund and the Norwegian government. Excerpts of his interview with IPS follow.

IPS: Why has there been so much male resistance to passing gender-related legislation in Uganda’s Parliament? CHRIS BARYOMUNSI: Our society, traditions and the environment have given a lot of powers to men compared to women, which to me is an injustice. And while these laws are trying to cure that injustice, men view it as part of their power going away.

As a natural reaction, they would oppose anything which is taking away their power.

I think what is important is to package the whole issue in a manner that will convince men that we are trying to empower them so that we can remove these gaps and enjoy our human rights as individuals; not that they are intended to disempower men and empower women to the disadvantage of men.

But definitely, it is a question of tradition, the environment and society in which we live, where it has become socially acceptable that the man is more powerful than the woman.

IPS: So why is male involvement important at this time? CB: Because we are basically tracing the power relations between a male and a female and it is true that in our society, the balance of power disfavours the female gender. So we are trying to address this balance by empowering the female so that she can enjoy her rights.

And of course this is now a bargain between the man and the woman. So it becomes very important for the males to be involved, fully on board and to appreciate the importance of this legislation.

And in any case, it is the men who make the decisions. Even the Parliament which will be the final authority over the legislation has more males than females. So if the men are not brought fully on board to appreciate what the purpose of this legislation is, then you cannot win.

Once male legislators are on board, it becomes easy for them to communicate to the rest of the men in the country. When we present this law (as one that is) good for us the leaders, then men in the community will definitely accept and know that it is good for them. But if we present that this is a very dangerous law to the men, then you will get resistance.

Male involvement should therefore be addressed as a priority.

IPS: How can we create effective and culturally-sensitive strategies which can get men on board? CB: Some of these things will not be easy to legislate upon because culture evolves and evolution sometimes is very slow. We have to critically look at these legislations.

And I think not everything must be put into a law. If we evaluate how far we have gone in terms of addressing these gender issues, we can see what to include in the laws and what to leave out.

But a law in itself is not the final solution. You can have a law, but also continue with interventions on the ground which will interrogate the culture, tradition and societal behaviour to ensure that people continue to be mobilised.

It therefore becomes important to design culturally-sensitive programmes and interventions that will challenge some of these harmful perceptions and behaviours.

And that calls for involvement of all the stakeholders. Cultural and religious leaders and opinion leaders within the communities must be brought on board.

Gradually and eventually, some of these stereotypes of the attitudinal beliefs will be discarded as everybody appreciates the need to empower both men and women and not really to disempower anybody.

IPS: How do men internalise the notions of what it means to be a man and how does that affect their ability to accept and appreciate gender-sensitive laws? CB: Society imparts a lot of powers on men.  So men see masculinity as giving them the power to domineer on others, especially women.

As a man, you want to make decisions in the home and be the one to support your family materially and financially thus seeing yourself as superior.

And then on the other side, women are seen as the weaker sex who should do the household activities as cooking, child bearing and laying beds.

These legislations are interrogating this kind of attitude and behaviour. Therefore, it becomes very crucial in empowering the man to understand that even a woman can do some of the things that men think are traditional male roles.

But it takes time. It should not be rushed. With increased exposure and mobilisation, the men will appreciate that their being powerful as a man should not be to the disadvantage of a woman.?  IPS: What is the way forward to ensure that this Marriage & Divorce Bill is passed in to law? CB: The women parliamentarians with support from their partners have done a good job to mobilise the male legislators before these laws are debated in Parliament. Part of the way forward is to mobilise both the men and women – because it is wrong to assume that it is only the men who are opposing the provisions in this Bill. We know that the failed Domestic Relations Bill was also resisted by some women.

So we must simplify these messages which are contained in the Bills and explain them to the public. The people behind these legislations could use the men who are already on board to explain to the public that the fears men could be having that these laws will undermine their power are far-fetched.

We shall make sure that we pass a law that is good for this country; a law that should not undermine the powers and responsibilities of men but also not undermine the powers and rights of women.

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