his year, the theme of the UN Women Africa’s International Women’s Day is “Rural and Urban Activists transforming women’s lives.” The theme reveals that there has been a growing number of women activists, and that these are currently spread throughout the rural and urban parts of Africa. The theme also reveals that progress has indeed been made towards building and strengthening a women’s movement.
However, the light at the end of the tunnel for gender equity and women empowerment still remains very dim. The underlying problem is that there has been much less focus on the relationship between gender and economic development. In fact, many investment policies and practices are assumed to be gender neutral. As a result, no specific gender related impact assessments are undertaken prior to the establishment of an investment. It is no wonder that today, the rising number of those adversely impacted on by land based investments is of women, especially women within the rural areas.
The need for a gender and women’s rights lens in the investment policy and decision making process cannot be overemphasized. This is especially given that the ideology that informs the policy processes today, namely the belief that Foreign Direct Investments are the panacea for poverty eradication and development. As a result, the existing investment policy frameworks seek to protect the interests and rights of investors at the expense of the rights and development interests of host communities, which comprise mainly women. The policy makers continue to turn a deaf ear to the gender gaps in investment and related policies which undermine women’s rights because they are mainly interested in attracting and securing investors and their investments. The results have been violation of women’s rights including their right to health, right to food, right to land among others.
It should be noted that in 2016, women working for a Dutch owned flower firm in Uganda were exposed to poisonous chemicals without proper working gears. Further investigations also revealed that the women were not being granted maternity leave as provided for under the Employment Act of Uganda. When this was reported to a government ministry, the response defended the investors and disregarded the concerns raised by the affected women. The organizations that sought to defend the affected women were labelled as being against investors. In addition, women’s rights are often violated when communities are displaced to create land for investments. This is especially burdensome given that the responsibility to provide food, water and fuel lies on women in rural areas. In areas such as Kalangala, women are reported to have lost out when the Bugala forest was destroyed to create land for establishment of Bidco Palm Oil Company limited.
Amidst these dynamics, both rural and urban women actors have an important role to play in defending the rights and interests of women in such circumstances.
Therefore as we celebrate the International Women’s Day, it is important to take stock of the efforts that women actors have made in defending women’s rights but to also identify the existing gaps. For example, more effort needs to be made in light of defending women’s economic rights and in defending women’s rights from violations by economic actors such as investors. This will require that women actors both in the rural and urban areas take a more effective role and influence the investment policy processes and decision making at global, regional, national and community levels.