Q&A with ARN Researcher Florence Muhanguzi Kyoheirwe

Tell us a little bit about yourself

Florence Muhanguzi Kyoheirwe is an Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies, working with the School of Women and Gender Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Makerere University.  I am a senior researcher and gender trainer in the fields of social development with extensive experience in gender and feminist research in thematic areas that include education, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, women’s economic empowerment, care economy, sexual and gender-based violence, agriculture and climate change.

In addition I have vast experience in both quantitative and qualitative action-oriented research with RCT design and have published widely in refereed journals and books. I have led and co-lead a number of multi partner research projects and participated in national and international conferences and engagement events. I am passionate about empowerment of adolescent girls and women, as well as being a gender activist. 

What are some of your research interests and why are you passionate about it?

 I am passionate about feminist and gender focused research on social development issues that have an impact women and girl’s empowerment namely education, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, sexual and gender-based violence, economic empowerment, agriculture and climate change.  

Growing up in a rural and patriarchal society, I saw the injustices that women and girls in my circle and in the neighborhood experienced. Having gotten an opportunity to advance, I would like to contribute to changing the situation positively with any opportunity that comes my way. This can look like contributing to changing the status quo and transforming the lives of women and girls.

What are the most interesting research findings from your work so far?

With support from the USAID Feed the Future Advancing Local Leadership Innovations and Networks (ALL-IN) Programe through the University of Carlifornia Davis and the International Centre for Evaluation and Development (ICED), with a team of Researchers from Makerere University (Grace Batebya Kyomuhendo, Brenda Boonabaana, Suzan Kavuma and Losira Nasirumbi Sanya ) we  undertook a baseline survey for an action research on strengthening women smallholder farmers , empowerment and resilience to agricultural shocks in Uganda.

The study is being implemented in two districts of Uganda (Isingiro in the Western part and Alebtong in the Northern part of the country) targeting economically active women (aged 18 – 64 years) with their spouses. One of the main themes under this study was establishing the levels of empowerment for women and men and their local understanding of empowerment.

The findings indicate; that only 42% of women and 48% of men were empowered with 58% of the women and 52% of the men who were disempowered. The gender gap in empowerment remains high at 22%. While is it common to for women to be disempowered, our study provides interesting findings where a huge 52% of the men were found to be disempowered centrally to what is known.

 Other interesting findings are;

  • Overall, women (and men) in the two districts are generally doing better in the following indicators: asset ownership; access to and decisions on credit; input in productive decisions; membership in influential groups; group membership); and visiting important decisions.
  • Interestingly, the areas of disempowerment for both women and men were control over use of income; autonomy in decision making; attitudes towards domestic violence with women severely inadequate in this indicator at 39%; respect among household members; self-efficacy and work balance with women demonstrating severe disempowerment.

Ideally you would expect men to be better off in these areas.

  • On attitudes about domestic violence, women are strikingly less likely to be empowered (exhibited supportive attitudes to domestic violence) at 38% compared to 69% among men.
  • Respect among household members has more men inadequate/disempowered than women, although both are generally inadequate in this indicator.
  • Interestingly, women are more likely to reach the threshold for access to and decisions over credit as well as input in livelihood decisions, although both men and women are largely adequate in these realms.

More interesting findings were documented from the qualitative interviews and group discussions on the local understanding of empowerment – with similarities and contestations about who an empowered woman ought to be.

Our qualitative findings evidently show discrepancies between the global conceptualization of women empowerment (that point to women’s sense of self-worth, ability to determine own choices, and right to influence social change) and the local narratives.

The local narratives of an empowered woman entailed;

  • Better family outlook (Developed, basic needs available and looking good, Children well cared for – eat well, educated and disciplined, children are in school, reach higher levels of education)
  • Decision making power/authority (Makes decisions in the home – alone or jointly with partner/husband, Husband does not interfere with her decisions, Plans and puts her plans into action) with emphasis on joint decision making.

“Such an empowered woman is the one who brings an opinion in her home and that opinion is considered. Her children look good, are educated, well disciplined, are not smugglers of goods to the neighboring country. Also, such a woman takes part in the decisions of her family with her husband. She is never left behind, their home looks good, she dresses decently and she is confident…. Any woman who decides on something and she does it, she is empowered…” Female LH        

“When other women see such women that make decisions with the husbands, they admire her, she is their role model and they ask her what she gave her husband. Here, there is still a belief that a woman bewitched the man…” Female KII

“A woman who decides on something and puts it into action is a hero. And men think that such a woman is the head of the family. Others think she gives orders in the home and the man follows them. Others think a man or such a woman is bewitched…” FGD women

  • Assets/property availability: Land, livestock (goats, cows), big farm

“when a woman cultivates a garden and after harvesting the man allows her to sell the produce and then she buys a goat for the home which later becomes a cow. There you can do big things that everyone can see…” FGD Female

  • Education: Educated and respected in the community
  • Economic independence/earns an income/hard working:  “We respect this woman because she is not over reliant and dependent on the man for provisions but she has her own things going and such women make a home a better place to be because she relieves her man from some pressure to provide for the family “(FGD, Male, Aloi subcounty, Alebtong district)

“We admire a woman that cooperates with the husband and does one thing as a family. They sit as family and agree as a family…”Female LH Isingiro

“Most times people fear such a woman. People will say she is an empowered woman and the one who will develop such an area. She will go, make some money that can be used to develop the home so people are also respected. This happens because she is not just any woman who sits down unemployed” (FGD, Male, Abako Subcounty, Alebtong district)

“Okay, the way I see an empowered woman is that woman who participates in small businesses to raise income to cater for the family” (Male, Omoro s/county, Alebtong)

The descriptions of an empowered woman largely revolved around the wellbeing of the family – women being able to add value to the home/families, multiply resource for family enjoyment, become a demonstration for the whole community in terms of family development, women empowerment should trickle down to the family – the children, husband.

There were contestations around an empowered woman – especially those who made decisions alone – these were viewed negatively as disrespectful of their spouses and societal values – “That is a woman that does what she feels like doing. She is a woman that does not consult the husband at home when she is going to do something. That is a woman that never agrees with the husband to do anything. Each one in the family does her, or his own things…” (Female LH Isingiro)

There were mixed feelings about joint decision making among spouses – both positive and negative as expressed this;

In this. village, if a woman makes decision together with her husband, some people are actually going to give him a lot respect because you will find that such a man has good plans for his future and the family and he also has a well-established household …. But some people will say such a man is overpowered by the woman because the woman runs all the affairs of his home yet it’s actually their decision to do so…” (Male, FGD, Alebtong district)

Women empowerment is viewed as threat to male position and power and so in the interest of creating peace in the home – “if you want peace you let the man control your money”, “empowered women” have to watch their moves, how they express themselves, let the men take charge, control their incomes, put themselves down…have to be wise to navigate through these experiences to remain productive and ensure peaceful relations in the family otherwise the man will marry another wife to create competition and neutralize her power.

“They are those men who plan together with their wives the money the wife has earned, even if people talk that he is at home, he does not mind and he is happy, but there is when the woman wants to control her money alone, then that is where the problems start from. The man will feel inferior, he will be laughed at by other men, and he will in turn harass the wife, disagreements will begin and their won’t be peace in that home…”.FGD Isingiro

Women empowerment was associated with witchcraft …

“Once the public knows that the woman earns more than the man, they keep thinking  that the woman is ruling the man in the home, she is the head of the family, she is the one that decides in a home… But families are moving on though the public thinks that the woman cannot be talked about by the man. As a woman you need to know how to handle it if you value your marriage, and if the man does not torture you for earning more than him… The man feels inferior, he feels less empowered. So, the woman has to mind the words she uses in a home…the man might think that you are doing that because you are earning more than him and you have your money… Female KII Isingiro

“They think that, the woman has taken over now, so a man is under her control …” FGD Alebtong

The first perception is that women are the ones ruling such families, whereas others say that the woman could have bewitched the husband. The community also becomes resentful to such households where women decide together with their husbands. The man in such household will be perceived as being controlled by their wives…” Male KII Isingiro

I think right thinking men should not marry these types of women because they see them as being difficult to deal with and infringing on the rights of men as head of household and decision maker….” Male FGD Alebtong

Other people view them in positive light and others negatively, and others think these kind of women should be killed because they see that they will become hard to deal with and maybe inspire other women to start challenging their authority as men, this is both men and women who look at it in this way (Male, FGD, ABia subcounty, Alebtong district)

“If a woman wants peace in a home, she leaves the man to do what he wants, otherwise even fights can result from refusing a man to sell what the woman has harvested” (mixed group, Isingiro district)

“Let truth be told. Men do not want to work and yet they want to spend like men who work. The only way they can get money is to sell what the woman has produced from her sweat. It can be livestock; goats, chicken at home. At home also they do not want to work and they want to show that they still have authority. They know if the woman gets money, they will be less of a man without their own money, so they take away the woman’s money to keep her in a begging state. men have killed women when it comes to the point of selling. so if you want your life you leave whatever you have harvested to go and you retain peace. So, men want to be in charge of money so that women keep begging from them, they limit women, women will never look smart, women will never eat good sauce at home and to him that is what makes him a man. He even tells fellow men that at his home, it is only him to authorize the use of a piece of soap, if he does not buy salt no one can in his home and he feels respected that way” (Mixed group, Isingiro district)

Empowered women were associated with pride and deviation from the social cultural standards of an ideal women – submissive and fear of marriage breakdown;

they tend to think that those kinds of ladies are proud and maybe they are too high to be under a man and sometimes they perceive that maybe they can’t be married off and they can’t take care of their marriages because they are educated, they make money on their own…Female KII Alebtong

While there were lots of contestations around an empowered woman which contradicted with the global conceptualization of women empowerment, the characteristics of an empowered man resonated well with these global definitions of empowerment. An empowered man was that man who makes decisions/decision maker, family head, talks and the wife does not question/challenge, owns wealth/assets – property, cars, money, hardworking, provides for his family

Overall, our study reveals that in Ugandan communities, empowerment is linked to who is a proper/ideal woman and man, and any deviation from that creates tension in the family and the broader society/community.

What are some challenges you face in your industry?

The major challenge with initiatives that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment is society’s resistance to change and male fear of losing their position and status, dreading the unknown.

Any initiative that threatens male power and control is often met with resistance – not only by men but also women because of the socialization. Women empowerment initiatives are seen to be disruptive of the natural order – the God-given positions of women and men.

What is the most promising and /or exciting part of your research work?

This is the implementation of interventions using a gender transformative approach. With this approach it is hoped that there will be a shift in the sticky social and gender norms that continue to disempower women and girls. 

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