Abigail Kajumba has been working within Social Justice leadership for over 20 years. She currently works in Uganda as the Executive Director for a well-respected human rights nonprofit, based in the global south, with a global impact that works to prevent violence against women and children. Abigail has also co-founded an innovative nonprofit, TriTrees, that focuses on planting super fruit trees with low-income communities, particularly women, for food security, economic empowerment, and environmental conservation. Her impressive 20 years relevant international development experience includes 14 plus years in global senior and executive leadership positions. Her honed specialties include organizational strengthening, strategic mission driven impact, and partnership building.
After 4 years working in policy, advocacy and community development across the UK, Abigail completed a master’s in international development at the prestigious SOAS, University of London. Abigail then moved to Uganda to work in progressively senior significant global development leadership roles. After growing the Queen of Buganda’s NGO; she grew the impact of Samaritan’s Purse International Relief while working in country leadership for the Uganda office. Abigail then developed into roles such as Africa Development Manager for INGOs, including having spent nearly a decade wholistically leading country and regional teams, managing both staff and directing organizational strategies. Most recently as Executive Director (and CEO) of Raising Voices she has successfully co-led the organization through a change management process, from ‘founder stage’ to ‘post founder stage’. She is also active on Boards, and has spearheaded several businesses including Uganda’s first natural birth center and the building of an eco-house.
Abigail is a vibrant and energized person who connects easily with people. She is passionate about social, as well as environmental justice and diversity, including promoting the rights and potential of girls and women across the world. Abigail is a confident and dynamic speaker, a highly focused big picture doer, a loved leader. Abigail is a global change maker!
Gender Equality Statistics
In Uganda, as of February 2021, 34.9% of seats in parliament were held by women. 34% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 111.4 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2017, down from 131.5 per 1,000 in 2015. In 2018, 26.1% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Women and girls aged 15+ spend 14.6% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 8.8% spent by men. In 2018, 55.1% of women had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. Employed population below international poverty line. Age 15+: female (38.5%); male (33.9%) Unemployment rate. Age 15+: female (11.7%); male (8.4%) Prevalence of severe food insecurity in the adult population (%): female (74.9%); male (78.1%) Literacy rate, age 15+: female (76.5%); male (70.8%) Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments: 34.9% Proportion of women in managerial positions: 31.8% UN Women (https://data.unwomen.org/country/uganda)
Interview with Abigail Kajumba (23 January 2023)
What types of prejudice or judgment have you personally faced in your journey to get to where you are today?
First, let me tell you that it's really lovely to be with you all today. Thank you, Gabriella for your question, it is a really good question. I am really fortunate in many ways, because I have not experienced a lot of the prejudices and judgments that other friends of mine have felt as a woman or as a Ugandan. This is especially true because I was protected by my supportive family. They gave me a good education and I could finish school up to postgraduate studies. My parents did not force me to go to work as a child, like many have to for example, and taught me that I could become anything, without feeling limited due to being black, female, young (at the time!) or anything else. However, out in the world I experienced racism in the way of name calling and jeers for example, and also common gender stereotypes such as ideas around what games girls should or should not play. Though not in my immediate family, stereotypes that can be found in other places too, existed: instead of running around ‘like a boy’, I was expected to be meek and quiet. Fortunately, I think this is changing globally, and in Uganda too. As a woman, it was furthermore assumed that I could not or should not lead, and yet I think I started being a leader at a young age. There were also prejudices around age. Yet, we should let no one judge us by our age. But it is very common.
I identify myself as an African, and as a black woman, which has its own challenges and its own blessings. I come from a mixed ethnic background, which also came with its cultural nuances… here in Uganda and in the United Kingdom. Now I can say in front of other Ugandans that I am a Ugandan woman, an African woman, a mixed ethnic woman, and in most circumstances at least, I do not feel reactions from my peers or my colleagues. But as a child I felt it. And even now if I go to my hometown in rural Uganda, where many members of the community have less experience with diversity, they might emphatically describe me as a mzungu (foreigner). They assume that I'm not like them because I have lighter skin, due to my mixed ethnicity with a black African father and a white English mother. In the case of the United Kingdom, they described me as a black girl, as an African, with its implications, and I was often perceived as black, and NOT ‘British’, because of my darker skin. At that time even the label ‘Black British’ was not common. That is changing. Now in Great Britain being black or mixed ethnic is not an exception. Nevertheless, there are still challenges of being black, and more so a black woman even in Britain today.
Interestingly, relating to my career leading global nonprofits and International NGOs, across Africa, the UK, the USA and beyond; as well as being African and multicultural myself, I have decades of work experience managing multicultural, diverse, and global teams. That, coupled with my related studies, means I have a deep understanding and working knowledge of this ever more global world. In light of that, although my ethnicity and international background was, and still can be, seen as a disadvantage, to the more enlightened, it is increasingly seen as a strength. I have been described as a unicorn in relation to being a wonderful mix of strengths. I am willing to identify as a colorful, unique (and ideally flying) unicorn! Mostly, like us all, I am me and for those who know me, that is enough.
What are/were some of your personal hurdles as a woman living in Uganda, and how has this affected your work?
In general, anywhere in the world, women are often underestimated, and that can affect how far you can go in your career. It may affect some women more than others. In my case, I feel that we wrongly lose credibility as leaders if we are mothers, for example. This is not only in Uganda, but everywhere in the world. Fortunately, here in Uganda we have seen changes lately. More women are involved in politics, and the government is working to improve the situation of women. But there are nuances as well. One of them is how to deal with our traditional cultures, and remember that Uganda is a pretty diverse country with more than 50 languages spoken within its borders. The role of women as caregivers and mothers is common to all of these cultures. And sometimes that undermines our role in the workplace, though it shouldn’t. All the elements of who we are makes us stronger and gives us more to offer at work, as well as at home. So, for example, in my tribe there existed an idea that women were generally less important than men. I believe we, men and women, are equal of course. Fortunately, that has been the case in my family, but inequality was perpetuated by some people and norms in my tribe when I was growing up. This has begun to change.
In addition to domestic and sexual violence, what do you believe is the most pressing obstacles for women in Uganda to achieve equality?
Thank you, Lauren. It's a really good question. First, let me confirm that yes, domestic and sexual violence, and any form of violence against women and girls, is a very important issue - not only in Uganda but in the rest
of the world too. And in Uganda the situation is worse than in some other countries in the region. As for other pressing obstacles for women in Uganda, influenced by patriarchy, religion and various social and cultural norms and so on; there are a number of factors determining this situation. One for example ranges from a lack of education, to a lack of employment and professional opportunities, which very likely is the result of the first factor. And when women are fortunate enough and they can get a job, and then go back home after working for hours, they realize that the situation there is also unbalanced. Recent statistics show that women do twice what men do at home, and it is not valued, and that is part of our traditional culture. That is not unique to Uganda, but it is a notable obstacle to achieving equality. It is a limit women find to develop their potential. Another one of many obstacles is climate change. A couple of years ago I co-founded a new initiative, a new NGO, TriTrees. We plant super-fruit trees for food security, economic empowerment and environmental conservation. The idea is to preserve our environment and promote human rights. Poverty is the origin of deforestation in many cases. The idea is to prevent deforestation and provide people with economic problems with healthy, sustainable food, and increased incomes. In Uganda and beyond, deforestation and the environmental issues that it provokes such as displacement, negatively affect women more than men. Poverty again is closely related to gender-based violence, for example. Environmental rights are human rights. So, if there are different factors explaining the issue, there are also different strategies to deal with it.
On the topic of women’s roles in society, what is something you’ve seen improve over your lifespan, and something that has gotten worse?
Thank you. This is another very interesting question. We have seen progress. Progress that should be attributed in part to the women's movement. Women’s activism is strong in Uganda. I believe there is more acceptance of women in leadership, women with power, women with the power to introduce changes. There are more women in Parliament and high positions in the administration. We have seen changes, above all in cities, where some people have begun to question the traditional ideas about inequality between men and women. In government women are well represented, but the benefits of this for most women is not felt enough.
There have been legal changes too. For example, there was an initiative to change the legislation regulating inheritance, which traditionally had been very negative for women. We need more in this case, but at least we have begun working to achieve our goals.
Before COVID19, the number of teenage pregnancies was dropping as well as the number of girls dropping out of school. Unfortunately, the pandemic did not help: our schools were closed for two years, and when the authorities decided to open them again, many did not go back. The new situation created by the pandemic also increased gender-based violence and the sexual abuse of girls at home. During this period there has also been an increase in the number of child marriages and very young mothers married to much older men.
In your experience, what is the biggest challenge when it comes to reshaping the societal customs and gender expectations that confine women to an inferior status and lead to violence against women, especially in African countries where such violence is embedded in culture and religion?
It is important to recognize that traditional values and norms in our culture are very important, and very influential. Gender-based violence can at times be identified with those traditional norms and values. They are so important that if we go to a community and we ask women if it is acceptable to use violence at home, even when they are the victims, many of them would say ‘yes’. So, it is very important to begin questioning those rules. Hence, we need to make people see the need to question those values to replace them if we want to achieve our goal of gender equality. For example, in the case of violence suffered by children, it is obvious that its origin has to do with the power, the authority assumed by adults. In this case, and the case of gender violence, we have also seen that to address the problem will take a long time. It takes time to work with close communities committed to preserving tradition. It is not just a question of working with their members individually. It is not just a question of discussing gender equality. It is a question about power. In this case what we need is to be able to deal with the real issue. If we understand and act knowing that this is a question of an unequal distribution of power, it will be easier to find a solution for gender inequality, and gender-based violence. So, to deal with this issue we have to work with these communities, question some traditional norms, but at the same time we need the collaboration of the government passing legislation towards helping women to change this situation.
What role does religion play in gender expectations in Uganda? How have you approached discussing gender inequality while recognizing these religious beliefs?
Thank you, Madeline. This is another very good question. Sometimes religion is definitely (mis)used in Uganda and the rest of the world to promote gender inequality and discrimination. That is the reason why one of the important adaptations of the SASA program for example, which Raising Voices and partners implement to prevent gender-based violence, is SASA Faith. In this case, it tries to deal with that topic of working with religious communities, and especially their leaders, whom I consider to be very important in the implementation of the program. It is obvious that passing and implementing legislation is important to stop gender-based violence and promote gender equality. Nevertheless, it is also important to deal with some of the origins of the problem: traditional (or religious) values and norms that many times determine this violence as well as gender inequality in general. And in trying to do that, it is important to know that it is not the Bible or the Quran for example that include those values, it is in the interpretation of those books by the religious leaders where we can find those prejudices. That is what we have to change - as religion and religious leaders can have a very positive impact on gender and all forms of equality.
To conclude, to achieve our goal (gender equality), we must work at two levels. On the one hand, we must negotiate new legislations to protect women and promote gender equality (macro level). On the other, we must work with communities, their leaders, and their members, to change their traditional and misogynistic interpretations of their religious norms and values.
Oppression is present in many aspects of a woman's life in Uganda: in education, disability, politics, marriage, employment, etc. What do you believe are some of the most important things which need to change in order to fight the oppression?
I have to emphasize, it is very important to try to change social norms and expectations. Not all these norms and expectations are religious in origin, so to also change those traditional non-religious ideas is very important too. And this does not mean to simply forget all our valuable cultural traditions. What we should do is to question the origin of some unbalanced situations, and to recognize that it is necessary to change them. Why accept violence against women? Why should women be the only ones taking care of the children? Why educate men and not women? Why should women only - remain at home?...
Who is an inspiration in Uganda for women’s rights and involvement and how has she impacted the environment?
There are so many women who have tried to support girls and women in Uganda in different ways… from HRH the Queen of Buganda who I worked for and whose nonprofit NGO (focused on the girl child) I used to lead, to unsung heroes in rural Uganda…
One of the most influential global leaders, who I met recently, is Winnie Byanyima. She is a Ugandan aeronautical engineer, politician, human rights activist, feminist and diplomat. She is the executive director of UNAIDS, since November 2019. This is an office of the United Nations dealing with AIDS. I got to talk at length with her last week. It was a pleasure. Previously she had been the director of Oxfam, one of the most prestigious and influential non-profit organizations in the world. She has been committed to promoting social justice, human rights and gender equality, although she focuses her work on ending poverty. She thinks that HIV/AIDS is not exclusively a medical issue. According to her, inequality and poverty are essential barriers undermining the efforts to put an end to this problem. I would also describe her as a ‘human leader’, which is rare.
The birth rate for 15–19-year-old girls in Uganda is very high. How do you believe early motherhood impacts women in your country? Do you have any ideas on how to lower the birth rate for that age group? How do you think a lower birth rate will impact women as a whole?
In two days, there will be a conference to introduce the Second National Strategy to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy. It is an initiative of the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development. I am glad that the government is making an effort to deal with one of the most significant problems we have in Uganda.
This is a multifaceted problem. It is a social issue, affecting the healthcare system and beyond. But it is also an economic issue: it affects the GDP of our country. Obviously, there are many women that since early on in their life they are not fully able to develop their potential (they stop attending school), and are not allowed to participate in the economic system. But above all, child marriage and early motherhood are human rights issues, they are manifestations of gender inequality, and unequal distribution of power. It has been discussed whether young pregnant women should be allowed to attend school. Some people believe that they are not the best example for the rest of the girls in class. I do not agree with that idea. These girls are already in a very difficult situation. We should give them an opportunity to be educated, and not as part of a marginalized group, but with the rest of the boys and girls to ensure they still feel like part of the community.
In most cases we are talking about old men marrying teenage girls, not about two teenagers marrying by mutual consent as it may happen in other societies. So, first, consent in this case is not even considered. It is also important to mention that these cases happen much more frequently among poor families. There is still often a bride price attached to the girl that the family offers, and the future husband has to pay. In other words, in these cases girls and women are seen as a commodity. It is difficult to imagine how one of these girls feels when she is involved in the transaction, when she sees that her parents agree on a price, when she is given to a much older man without her consent, giving way to early pregnancy, sexual abuse...
The number of cases of child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and sexual abuse rose during the pandemic, as did poverty. The government imposed a very long shut down of schools (two years), to curb COVID 19, which was a factor determining that trend.
Regarding teenage pregnancies in Africa, and more precisely in Uganda, what are the most important initiatives implemented to bring back young mothers to school?
It's a great question. I believe that the government is trying to deal with teenage pregnancies and help young mothers to go back to school. There are also groups of activists, non-profit organizations, trying to collaborate and advise decision makers in this area. In some cases, these non-profit organizations, national or international organizations, try to bring education to isolated communities.
The Ugandan government implemented universal primary education (free education) years ago. It was a very good idea. Nevertheless, sometimes it is difficult to implement these good ideas especially when it is not easy to finance this kind of project. Unfortunately, we can say that in 2023 still many girls cannot even finish primary school education. Although, as I already said, parents do not have to pay for the primary education of their children, they often cannot even afford the school materials to be able to attend classes. And in difficult economic situations, parents require their children to help work in their plots or look for a job.
Another important problem is the quality of the education. In some cases, there are classes with more than a hundred students with only one teacher. And teachers do not get high salaries, and it is not unusual to not see them present in their school, but in other places trying to make the money their families need.
In these circumstances, the role of non-profit organizations is very important in Uganda. They try to help those girls whose parents cannot afford to have them studing and not working or being married off. The NGOs for example sponsor girls to at least finish primary and ideally secondary school education. They also help girls by providing them with appropriate sanitary provisions. Girls usually miss school for up to a week a month, because they do not have the money to buy what they need in this situation. Finally, they also offer vocational training to boys and girls who have not had opportunities to develop the skills necessary to get a good job. As you can imagine, this is also very important for the Ugandan economy.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
You have already referred to some women stereotypes in Uganda, but allow me to ask you, what are the most important women stereotypes in Uganda? Is it possible to find different stereotypes according to age (generation)? Are those stereotypes different among rural and urban communities? Are there differences between cultures?
It is possible to find differences between rural and urban communities. Urban communities usually are more dynamic, more open, more diverse, and more educated, so their culture changes faster than that of rural communities. It logically should affect concepts such as women’s traditional roles, gender equality, and even women stereotypes. Nevertheless, the situation of those women living in Ugandan cities are far from being ideal.
For example, among the urban Ugandan women of my age, there is a group of well-educated women, economically stable, who have become leaders in their workplace. They provide economically for their family. But when they finish their working day, they go back home and there are expectations, like in many other countries in the world, that they must assume most of the domestic work, including looking after their kids. Nobody recognizes that amazing effort. I know one case, she is a friend of a friend, a woman of my age, a well-educated professional, a leader in her field. Well, at home, her husband apparently still expects her to wake up first, go around the bed to his side, kneel and traditionally greet him. This is not the worst case we can find, but it is still surprising that in those circumstances they are keeping this tradition.
There are differences between generations, and it is important to see how influential parents can be in this case. For example, my (African, ‘religious’ and cultural) father has always advocated women’s rights and gender equality. It made me think and eventually work to achieve those same goals. Hopefully my children are seeing what I perceived living with my father, and they will grow up advocating similar values. I hope they will advocate the need for social change, rejecting the limits some traditions imposed on women and their professional careers, creating a society with real gender equality at home too, without fixed gender roles. I insist we all must collaborate to achieve this goal: the government, positive legislation, cultural leaders, promoting changes in communities, and parents educating their children, in school and at home.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
It's been a pleasure and an honor to have you in class with us. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for what you are doing in Uganda and the world.
Thank you. Thank you so much. It's been lovely to meet you all.