Violence against women-that was one of the topics we discussed during The Women In Public Service Project (WPSP) Uganda Institute http://wpsuganda.com/ under the theme: Leadership for Transparent and Accountable Governance March 6th-9th, 2015.
The venue of the institute Lake Bunyonyi is one of those places one ought to visit before they die. It was agreeably a perfect destination for both delegates and speakers from various countries who convened to advance the WPSP vision launched by Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2011, to increase women’s representation in Public service to achieve a minimum of 50/50 women representation by 2050 http://womeninpublicservice.wilsoncenter.org/
Unfortunately, one of the 29 islands that gives this lake its magnificent beauty has a dark history, highlighting critical issues we were discussing at the institute-violence against women. Punishment Island, locally known as Akampene in the Kikiga local language is a ‘grave yard’ where girls/women who became pregnant outside marriage were dumped and left to die, many of starvation. The Women who attempted to swim from this inhabitable Island drowned and no statistics exit nor accountability provided to date. They did not live to tell their stories.
I felt chills as we circled Punishment Island, wondering how many women and girls could have died in this island and feeling even more disturbed that not only did the women die but they also lost their unborn babies who were either male or female. Avoiding to be judgmental in my thoughts, I wondered how the boys/men who were responsible for the pregnancies felt; Did they put up resistance or they simply watched on as the women/girls were bundled up to Punishment Island?
Our tour guide, born and raised in the Islands told us of a few survivors. He said ‘They were lucky to be rescued by poor men who could not afford bride price but had access to the desperate, vulnerable girls/women abandoned to die at Punishment Island’. To these women it was a matter of survival rather than marriage by choice and they had to live in shame, as outcasts for the rest of their lives for the ‘’grave sin’’ they had committed.
Speaking of bride price, these thoughts brought back memories of my own life. First of all my own birth was a scandal simply because I was a girl. Girls were seen as useless, not worth educating; in fact we all had one name in common ‘apesenin’ literary meaning a ‘’debt’’. It was predetermined that we girls would get married off at an early age and when the marriage failed (which would always be the woman’s fault), there would be a ‘’debt’’ to pay back-, bride price to be returned. I saw this happen at an early age when one morning my auntie’s husband, 9 children later stormed my grandfather’s compound, (with security guards) screaming how he did not want my auntie anymore. Attracted by the screams, villagers came to the scene and looked on as he drove away cattle, taking more that he had paid for bride price so many years ago, claiming the cows must have multiplied so he had the right to drive out all the cows, goats and sheep from my grandfather’s crawl. It was payback time- “apesenin’’
Looking back at Punishment Island (Akampene), it was noticeable that it was dying, on the verge of being submerged together with its history! There is no monument in place in remembrance of all those innocent women/girls and their unborn children. –the reason am adding my voice to document this so as to preserve history, for us and other generations to learn from!
Education for both boys and girls, especially at a young age is key to countering such traditions that fuel violence against women and am delighted that for our Women’s day voluntary event, we at the WPSP in Uganda decided to distribute text books to Burimba Primary school (located in one of the Islands of Lake Bunyonyi). We traveled 20 minutes by boat and hiked for over 45 minutes, navigating hills inaccessible by car but it was worth it!
As we waved our hosts goodbye, I was glad to have had this experience with fellow women from several parts of the world including Pakistan, USA, Syria, The Gambia, Burundi, Uganda, and South Africa.