A country of boundless physical beauty, well known as the “pearl of Africa,” Uganda also hides one of the most tragic occurrences: abduction of children by Joseph Kony and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in North Uganda over a period of twenty years. Nonetheless, Uganda is known as “a leader in policy development with an established record of developing policies that are used as best practices in Africa” (Brown, 2013). Government policies and their effects on North Uganda developed into a research topic for my first class at TC, International Policies, during summer 2013. As the case study for the course turned into a conference presentation, I started to wonder if an apology of sorts was required to the conference audience. I questioned what it means to look critically at the policies of a developing country, and I wondered whether research that is not field based might be a form of appropriation, meant for passive consumption by a Western audience. Having read much this term about Western perspectives and also keeping in mind Easterly’s perspective that MDG goals make Africa look worse, how fair is it to be critical? Yet, the case of Uganda is unique. Uganda has met many of the MDG’s, including gender parity in schooling. There are numerous policies to promote gender equality and education such as the National Strategy for Girls’ Education (NSGE); there’s a gender desk at the MoE (Ministry of Education); gender mainstreaming exists; and quotas for female ministers are present in Uganda. The Global Gender Gap report ranks Uganda extraordinarily as 28th overall out of 163 countries and 5th in sub-Saharan Africa (The Global Gender Gap Report, 2012). Gender parity in education, universal primary schooling and universal secondary schooling are some of these successes. However, tremendous barriers to access and quality exist. Girls experience high drop-out rates, early pregnancies are rampant, and incidents of rape are not uncommon.
Elaine Unterhalter’s statement, “gender parity is so hollow a measure of gender equality” has guided this research. Thus, I started wondering if it was the government that should apologize for passing policies which remain largely nominal such as the USE (universal secondary schooling) and UPE (universal primary schooling). These policies have incredible hidden costs, for appropriating these quantitative relative successes to enable it, a regime that has been in power since 1986, to maintain strong relationships with the West and with donors to continue the flow of aid despite high levels of alleged corruption. A full 41% of Uganda’s national budget comes from the international aid. I wondered also if as a relatively stable country geopolitically in a region of great instability, Uganda had harnessed gender and education policies as social currency to elevate its position in the international arena, yet which make little impact for the marginalized people, especially in Northern Uganda, for whom these policies should engender the most impact. Against this backdrop, it becomes salient to be critical.
There are different perspectives for why North Uganda lags, having the highest poverty rates, lowest net enrollment ratios, and rising numbers of ‘defilement,’ the Ugandan term for rapes of children under 18. Although it is true that during the LRA’s insurgency, nearly 20,000 children were abducted and 1.5 million people were displaced, the LRA’s atrocities are still the reasons given by government to explain the higher rates of poverty; yet, there are substantial critiques of the government’s discrimination towards the North due to political rivalries in providing equal funding. This endemic inequality is manifested in various levels of governance of the North and has meaningful implications on the realities of gender and education policy implementation. “[C]entral and western Uganda benefited most from …investment [of Western aid], while the north and north- east suffered relative neglect, a situation which some came to believe was ‘punishment’ for the region’s role in the bush war” (Ritchie, 2011). Moreover, there is a reverse correlation between the wage bill given to students and the district level poverty (Winkler and Sondergaard, 2008). Therefore, amidst the myriad policies, numerous problems of quality, transparency, and systemic inequities of poverty, especially in the most vulnerable regions in the North, egregiously leading to low survivor rates of children in completing primary school remain (Tamasuza, 2011). UNICEF country report findings show that a mere 32% remain in school by P-7 [grade 7] (UNICEF, 2012). An interview with Jackie Olanya, who is from Kitgum, North Uganda and has worked for the ANPPCAN (African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect), provided valuable insights into how marginalized people of the North cope with policies that are only nominal such as those that are meant to protect girls. Responding to an assertion made in the Guardian about poorer families settling cases of defilement outside court for money, Olanya states,
The truth is that research which says poorer families seek material gains rather than punishment is rather condescending to the poor. The truth is at the end of the day, people are people and families are families. When we met with families of survivors – they were furious about the defilement, especially the mothers of the girls. However, they were up against so much that it made seeking the ‘conventional’ “western” type of justice so difficult for them due to many barriers. Firstly, even just reporting was a problem – who do you report to? And if you report? So what? People in Ug normally report cases to the local councils (who are the lowest local government level and are present in each village)
For the people of Uganda, the country may still be a pearl, but for the government, it has become a form of production on many levels, a factory that they can manipulate, to create a façade of success.
Natasha Mansur is a masters student studying education and international development at Teachers College