International Women’s Day: Women and the Transformation of Uganda’s Slums

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In Uganda there are still many men who think women should not lead. Someone can ask you, ‘You as a woman, you are talking?  You are just a woman. You are urinating while squatting, what can you say? What I always say is that the world is changing. Development makes many changes. When you empower women you empower the nation. — Katana Goretti

Katana is one of over 31,000 women in the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU). These women constitute approximately 70 percent of the federation’s entire membership. This composition is typical of the 34 slum dweller federations in the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) network, which seeks systemic change by facilitating a women-centered, community-driven approach to urban development.

In urban poor communities throughout the global south, slum dwellers are overwhelmingly excluded from decision-making processes typically dominated by male elites. SDI believes this has adverse consequences for inclusion, accountability, transparency, and equity. Federations in the SDI network believe a women-centered approach develops greater horizontal accountability and a deeper collective agenda. Rather than seeing power as a zero sum game – where gaining power means stripping it from another – SDI believes that collaborative power is the best strategy for combatting systemic inequality.

Urban poor federations are comprised of hundreds of savings groups. In Uganda the NSDFU is comprised of almost 500. Within these groups savings is used as a tool to mobilize not only financial resources, but more importantly, organizational capacity, trust, and a collective agenda. Most members’ initial focus is on self-help and support. Women in the NSDFU will tell you that friendship, support, and the savings practice have changed their lives. The following statement from NSDFU member, Kyewa Elizabeth, reflects a common sentiment:

I am grateful to the federation because apart from our savings, our group is a meeting of friends. We check on each other and give each other moral support. I enjoy hearing stories of success from my fellow members who consult me many times. Our friendship and cooperation and that feeling of togetherness to develop ourselves makes me happy and I feel contented.

For women, savings provide a powerful vehicle for reducing the vulnerability associated with dependence on men for financial support. Women in the federation cite a significant reduction in exploitative relationships with men thanks to their savings in the federation, which they consistently report have enabled them to pay school fees and buy foodstuffs for their children. As NSDFU member Kabahuma Gladys explains,

I encourage [women in slums] to join because every woman should try to save some money whenever she can because relying on a man … all the time is not good for a woman, as we all know. Girls and women are very vulnerable, people take advantage if you do not have anything, but when you have your little, it’s better.

As trust and support accumulate and as capacity, knowledge, and independence grow, confidence and authentic empowerment results. Women federation members consistently report an increased ability to speak in front of others, reflecting elevated self worth and skills. NSDFU member Najjuko Diana explains:

As an individual, I used to be very timid because I was not privileged to go to school so I used to fear speaking English. But now I can talk freely in my local language and English.

Skills extend beyond public speaking, to other fields typically dominated by males. NSDFU member Sarah Kiyimba Nambozo, for example, has been trained to make soil-compressed bricks, and micro-slabs.

I didn’t know that I, as a community person, could learn and then teach others. As I talk, I am an engineer from the community! I didn’t expect to have that idea… For communities we believe that we learn by doing, practically.

SDI facilitates member federations such as the NSDFU to conduct peer-to-peer exchange between savings groups and as these groups come together (federate) slum dwellers begin to build a national movement with a governance system that evolves from the women-centered model of the saving groups. As part of the movement women begin to look at issues beyond the group, to the federation at city and national scale. Women, such as NSDFU member Edith Samia, take part in enumeration (community conducted censuses) to inform this process.

I have also been on the enumeration team. That [enumeration] report has enabled us to come up with many projects: a sanitation unit in Masese, street lighting in Masese, a sanitation unit at Ripon, a stone-pitched drain in Rubaga, street lighting in Mpumudde, and electricity extension to Kawama. It has also helped us to make other proposals which are there. It has also enabled me to partner with our municipality and sit on the Municipal Development Forum executive committee. Here we can encourage even other communities to come up with projects and proposals. Our enumerations have also helped us to fight eviction in Kikaramoja.

As individual transformation of women occurs, institutional transformation of the NSDFU follows. From the support and friendship of the savings group the women build trust and a collective agenda for members. Members develop skills, confidence, and knowledge that strengthen their organizational capacity. As groups come together at the city and national level the agenda of members takes a wider scope as women begin to explore the reasons for their shared struggle and strategies for overcoming them.

Federation decision-making at the city and national level is designed not to mimic existing exclusionary public systems, but forge new systems that follow the same horizontal accountability systems developed in the savings schemes. In this way, the NSDFU is working to build alternative systems that position women’s participation at the center of mobilizing collective action for urban development in Uganda.

By Skye Dobson