Equal rights begin in the home: household mentoring in Uganda

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Equal rights begin in the home: household mentoring in Uganda

©IFAD/Sarah Morgan

Participants in household mentoring in Uganda

Household mentoring is an innovative tool that provides the skills and knowledge that enable poor families to improve their well-being and incomes. And, as an IFAD-supported programme in Uganda has shown, it also promotes greater equality and shared decision-making among household members.

"Our situation was extreme," says William Simon Kasija, a farmer from Kamwenge district in western Uganda. "We owned no plates, no chairs, no mattresses or bedding, no livestock, not even any chickens. The children were not in school because we were unable to pay the school fees."

Household mentoring has given Kasija and his wife Imaculata Ninsiima the skills and knowledge to make rapid and substantial improvements to their living conditions. But both agree that these changes have been made possible because they learned to collaborate and share together, and develop a joint vision of their goals.

"Our relationship has changed", says Ninsiima. "Now we plan together and we know how much we each earn. We have goals for our future. We want to build a brick house, finish paying for the children's education, and then buy some cattle."

"The women I know admire us and wish they could work with their husbands as I do," she adds.

Household mentoring tackles entrenched poverty in families. This innovative tool has been piloted in Uganda through the IFAD-funded District Livelihoods Support Programme (DLSP) since 2011. Mentors are nominated by local leaders and trained by community development officers at district level. They make regular visits to mentee households over a period of years, working with household members to convey knowledge, skills, and the confidence to make the leap out of poverty.

One of the main goals of mentoring is to overcome traditional gender disparities and promote sharing, collaboration and planning towards mutually agreed goals. The mentor encourages husband and wife to share resources and work and plan together, for the family's well-being.

"This process is transformative", says Clare Bishop-Sambrook, lead technical specialist for IFAD's Policy and Technical Advisory Division. "Simply by planning together and making decisions together, family members are unlocking the potential of the household."

Collaboration and equality in the home

Inequality in the home is closely linked to poverty. In rural Uganda, husbands and wives are often responsible for different activities related to food production and income generation. Women generally have lower levels of education, own fewer assets and are less able to make decisions about the income they generate. Men and women often keep their incomes separate, and have different priorities when it comes to spending. These disparities frequently give rise to conflict and even violence, and undermine the unity and well-being of the family.

Mentoring encourages men and women to break through the mistrust generated by traditional gender roles, and learn to pool their resources and plan together. As Kasija and Ninsiima have discovered, sharing and collaboration promotes harmony, motivation, mutual respect and forward-thinking.

A mentor can also help foster equal rights in the rarer cases when assets are owned and controlled by the wife. Jamada Matende and his wife Safiyati Nabilumba from Babaari village in Mayuge district were a couple in conflict.

"In the past there was misunderstanding between us," says Nabilumba. "I had my own money but we didn't share. Now we share everything and decide together what the family needs. Because of this we have changed our circumstances and moved out of poverty. We are happy and our love has grown."

Empowering women within the home and beyond

Mentoring seeks to gradually loosen the traditional restrictions on women's roles in the home and community through a process that involves the understanding and acceptance of male household members. It can help empower women and men on many fronts, from learning about nutrition and improvements they can make in the home, to sharing the management of household finances and small enterprises, and speaking out in community activities.

Mentors encourage mentees to join savings and other common interest groups, and to take advantage of adult literacy classes where available. For women in particular, gaining the confidence to take part in grass-roots activities, speak up and defend their ideas is a significant step forward, and brings the benefits of mentoring into the wider community.

Women who head households are often among the most vulnerable members of a community. Mwatum Kagoya is a widow from Mayuge district who is responsible for a household of 19, which includes ten grandchildren. After more than two years of mentoring she has turned a situation of hopelessness into a flourishing small business. Through judicious use of her small assets and with the help of a small food security grant from the programme, she has invested in growing bananas, coffee and cocoa, and has been able to buy a cow.

"I'm different now from the others," she says. "The knowledge I've been given has enabled me to think for myself and come up with solutions and ideas. My neighbours ask, how did you achieve all this? You're just a widow! Now they come to me for advice."

Polygamy and equal rights

Polygamy is common in rural Uganda, particularly in the eastern region, where high poverty and birth rates, and numerous incidents of domestic conflict are all directly linked to this practice. Men may have several wives, regardless of their ability to provide for the large families they generate. Women are often left to take care of the children – feed, clothe and send them to school – with scarce resources.

When supporting polygamous households, mentors are careful to treat each member equally, and to support the resolution of any underlying conflicts. Mutwaribi Tulembiye and his two wives, who live in a village in Mayuge district, were chosen for mentoring because they were known to be a household in conflict. The wives were constantly in and out of the local sub-county offices with complaints of ‘harsh treatment'.

"We were not happy," says Tulembiye's second wife, Fatouma Nakwanga-Nga. "We all worked hard together, but there was no sharing of income and decision-making."

"Mentoring helped our husband change," says Aliysa Naiboka, the first wife. "He used to be very hard on us, but the mentor convinced us all to change our attitudes. When there are problems now we talk things over."

After three years of mentoring, the benefits are evident to other members of the community, and not just in terms of the improvements in their living conditions. Tulembiye has become an example to the community, who see the changes in him and his family.

"There has been a great change in our household," he says. "A working relationship makes things happen. Mentoring taught me that whatever belongs to the family should be shared in the family, and not controlled by one individual."

"We accept polygamy as a part of our culture," says Osinde Owor, of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. "Rather than campaigning to stop this practice, we are putting emphasis on the cost of feeding, schooling, and providing medical care for such large families. The message is beginning to sink in."

Engaging with children and young people

In poor areas, particularly in the east of Uganda, children often experience neglect and exploitation, and miss out on schooling. Young girls can fall prey to early marriage, and the youth suffer from unemployment and the negative influence of peer groups. Children, particularly in orphaned or households suffering severe poverty, can be co-opted into providing casual labour for other community members.

Through mentoring, families learn about human rights within the home and outside, in particular the rights of children.

"Mentoring is also a means of communicating the rights and the law as it affects household members," says Owor. "The mentors become an effective conduit for reaching the communities, and can also perform the function of paralegals, especially in relation to gender-based violence or abuse of children's rights. They can be transformed into social workers at the community level."

Older children are encouraged to participate in household mentoring sessions, learn alongside their parents and contribute to household planning. Joseph Dheyongera from Mayuge district was widowed in 2010, just as he was starting the mentoring process. His son and daughter, both 16, have attended mentoring sessions with him. "When I sell produce we agree together how we will use the income we earn," he says. "It's good to work together. Without consensus and deciding together, there's no harmony in the family."

A gradual process

In 2013 the District Livelihoods Support Programme received the IFAD gender award for the Eastern and Southern African region ‘for achievements in promoting gender equality and women's empowerment.' Household mentoring has played an important role in bringing about those achievements, by encouraging greater equality of control and decision-making over production, assets and earnings.

"This is just the beginning of a gradual process," says Gertrude Tuhairwa, community development officer for Kamwenge district. "The roles of men and women are deeply engrained. But there is progress. In some cases men have given up some of the control they exercised and they have stopped drinking. Reactions in the community have been positive. These men set the standard for others, and when this goes hand in hand with great harmony and prosperity, others in the community are likely to follow and imitate them."

"One of the programme's greatest achievements is having introduced joint decision-making within mentored households," says Judith Ruko, rural sociologist for DLSP, "and thereby begun to shift cultural practices in rural communities."