They are the most illiterate. They are the most involved in un-gainful employment or work where you don't get paid. They are the ones bearing the brunt of bringing up children and ensuring they go to school. They are the poorest. They are women. That is the perfect summary of a report released mid-October, 2005 on the poverty situation in Uganda.The report entitled - Chronic Poverty in Uganda; The Policy Challenges - revealed that over 7million of 26 million population is chronically poor, with women forming the bulk. "Overall, 27% of the chronically poor households in rural areas are headed by women with the percentage rising to 40 in urban setting," says the report, a result of a three-year research by Chronic Poverty Research Centre, a global network whose work in Uganda is coordinated by Development Research and Training (DRT).
It says the probability of women-headed families being chronically poor and moving into chronic poverty is substantially higher then for male-headed families. "Poor women are particularly vulnerable to chronic poverty in addition to gender inequalities, which then doubles their plight. Unequal gender relations underlie all the maintainers of chronic poverty in Uganda. Plus, women headed households are usually associated with a high number of young dependants," the report says.
The researchers said during community consultations, gender featured prominently as a cause and maintainer of poverty. "This is perpetrated by the practice of paying bride price and domestic violence, which is often linked to alcoholism. Conservative attitudes among both men and women are also in the center of the problem," adds the 66-page report. The report describes chronic poverty as; "Poverty where individuals, households or regions are trapped in multi-dimensional poverty for several years or a lifetime, and where poverty is linked with intergenerational transmission." It distinguishes the 'chronically poor' from the 'usually poor' who occasionally move out of poverty, the 'churning' poor who regularly move in and out of poverty and the 'occasionally poor' who are usually not poor but fall into poverty.
The DRT Executive Director, Charles Lwanga-Ntale said at the report launch in Kampala that the multi-dimensional facets of poverty mean the poor experience various disadvantages at the same time. "These combine to keep them in poverty and block opportunities for escape," Lwanga-Ntale said. The report describes the high risk groups to chronic poverty as women, people with disabilities, widows, street children, orphans and other disadvantaged children, the elderly, refugees and internally displaced people, HIV/AIDS affected households and isolated communities. "Where one belongs to two or more risk groups, risk is greater. But in all cases, women are especially vulnerable," the report says.
Access to agricultural land, which is the main economic activity for 80% of Uganda's population, featured prominently in the report. The Uganda 2002 Housing and Population Census indicates that 16% of women-headed households are landless compared to 10% of the male-headed households. "Because women can only get land through their fathers, brothers or husbands, infertile women seek successive marriages until they are ultimately abandoned back to their parents' compounds. Women are generally excluded from participating in household and community decisions. They are seen especially in rural areas as a source of labour and as men's property," says the report.
Chronic poverty is characterized by persistent lack of basic life necessities like food, clean water, shelter, beddings, clothes, healthcare and education. "The chronically poor also lack production assets like land, agricultural tools and livestock. A large number of dependants with these limited resources worsen the situation," the report says. In the western district of Kisoro, after alcohol abuse, the average poor become severely poor with widowhood, which is associated with loss of property; or by men selling off land in order to remarry. Many women in Uganda therefore, move into chronic poverty when their spouses die especially in cases where relatives grabbed land and other assets upon the death of their husbands.
The report noted that the practice of widows losing land and other assets to the relatives of her husband despite having children occurs throughout the country. "AIDS widows are commonly stigmatized. Frequently, women and children will be evicted from their homes and stripped of assets by the deceased husbands' relatives. Children's education is commonly truncated by the death of a parent," the report says. Government's 2003 Poverty profile indicates that poorest groups suffer from the highest level of illiteracy at 51% compared to the national illiteracy level of 40%, with the number of illiterate women in both rural and urban areas doubling that of men. In many communities, girl children are not permitted to go to school. The old traditional perception where girls are viewed as wealth earners when they are married off still persists. Education is not only costly to the family, but also postpones the time for marrying off the girl child. This attitude has played a major role in ensuring the big numbers of women among the chronically poor. Persons with disability, another category of people forming the bulk of the chronically poor, lack physical and mental capabilities, which expose them to extreme conditions of discrimination. Over 80% of people with disabilities are chronically poor, says the report. "Failure to acquire education early on and disenfranchisement from inheritance means they can neither build skills nor obtain formal employment, a situation that also affects their off-spring.
"Women with disabilities say they are often unable to care for themselves and their children often resulting into disabilities for the children as well. This is particularly true for women who live off begging and bear children 'on the street'," the report says. During the research, many communities also mentioned poor married women. This mainly due to their subordinate positions in the household where they have no control of productive resources and income as well as their reproductive role. Polygamy is also mentioned as a factor compounding women in chronic poverty. "Women say most men unfairly divert household resources when getting a second or third wife," the report says. The chronically poor are not active in the economic arena as sellers but as buyers. Government's 2003 Poverty profile indicates that 63% of the total expenditure of Uganda's poorest people is spent on food.
The report says policies like market liberalization, the requirement for physical assets to access credit, the land policy and government programmes like Plan for Modernization of agriculture which target the active poor are not helping the chronically poor out of their plight. "The chronically poor people are skeptical about the benefits of market liberalization because traditional food crops which they grow are sold in small quantities and bring low prices. They contrast the current situation with that prior to liberalization when farmers received cash crop seeds and a fair, set price for the crop," the report says. Closure of the numerous state enterprises was cited to have aggravated chronic poverty. This led to reduced employment opportunities for unskilled labour, which the chronically poor offer most because of low education levels. War was blamed as responsible for chronic poverty particularly in the northern part of the country, where rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army has waged a 19-year war against government.
"Households in rural northern Uganda have a higher probability of moving into poverty and being chronically poor relative to, say, the rural western Uganda. In the north, the level of human development is low. While other reasons may account for the imbalances with the rest of the country, the worsening situation between 1996 and 2000, as shown by the household data is related to insecurity," the report says.
The report says war has affected the productivity of the people in the region where an estimated 1.5 million people are displaced and confined to internally displaced people's camps. It is now Africa's longest running open conflict after the Sudan crisis was resolved. Civil society reports estimate that the war has caused Uganda's national economy at least US$ 1.33 billion, approximately 3% of the nation's GDP or US$ 100million annually. Women and children are the worst hit. Beatrice Kiraso Kabarole district Woman M.P said no significant change will be realized in the fight against chronic poverty in Uganda 'until the political situation in the country is sorted out'.
"A lot of research has been done. But the Executive has to bring a framework on chronic poverty for Parliament to legislate. For your information, most of the bills come from the Executive," she said. Keith Muhakanizi, the director for economic affairs in the Ministry of Finance says the ministry has been striving to reduce poverty levels in the country since 1997. He anticipated that the general poverty level will reduce to less than 10% of the population by 2017 while chronic poverty will reduce to 15% by the same year. Uganda has had several studies which highlight the disadvantaged situation of women. While the government has put in place some of the necessary policy and legal framework to uplift the status of women, Elizabeth Eilor, the coordinator AWEPON observes that chronic poverty among women was directly linked to the right to property. This, she said, could be solved by good legislation like the Domestic Relations Bill. These policies should also be accompanied with the necessary resources to make them bear tangible results. Unless that is done, the majority of Ugandan women will remain in the vicious cycle of poverty.