• Original Paper

    Geoverse ISSN 1758-3411

    The Ambitions of Secondary School Girls in Jinja District, Uganda in the context of ‘Gender Balancing’

    Jonathan Kelly
    Department of Geography, University of Gloucestershire
    September 2011

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    This study investigates the ambitions held by Ugandan female secondary school students and the influences upon the formation and realisation of these ambitions. A particular focus is placed upon the influence of the education system. Also the study investigates factors which constitute either opportunities or constraints for girls in their attempts to achieve these aims. This analysis seeks to generate informed recommendations as to how policy makers and educational practitioners can help facilitate girls’ successful pursuit of their ambitions and thus to a considerable extent empower them to shape their own futures. The term 'Gender balancing' is a term widely used by the participants to refer broadly to efforts and policies which work towards women's empowerment.

    To investigate these issues in-depth interviews were undertaken with a range of participants. This included mainly female secondary school-age students from a selected mix of schools from within (or within close proximity to) the Jinja urban area in Jinja district, Uganda. In addition to this, three teachers and a careers advisor were also interviewed. Two ‘key informants’ were also interviewed providing an important institutional context to the theme of women’s rights advocacy in the area. The analysis of this data leads to a discussion concerning the important issues of socio-cultural restrictions to women’s freedoms, the gender-sensitivity of the educational environment and male attitudes towards women’s empowerment. This study suggests areas deserving of further study and highlights important issues requiring the consideration of policy makers and practitioners, particularly those concerned with the education of girls in Uganda.


    Gender Balancing, Jinja, Qualitative interviewing, Development, Empowerment, Education.


    The issue of women’s rights has risen to prominence in development policy agendas as illustrated by the inclusion of gender equality as one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) (UN, 2006). MDG number three is stated as: “Promote gender equality and empower women” with a more specific target to:

    Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably before 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015

    UN, 2006: 10

    Universal Primary Education is viewed as key within the development literature (Kikampikaho and Kwesiga, 2002; Snyder, 2002a) and research highlights the emancipatory potential of education (DFID, 2006; Touray, 2006). This study will work to achieve aims set within this broader field of development concern. Those aims are to make recommendations regarding: the influencing factors on girls’ aims and ambitions for the future; the possible ‘opportunities’ and ‘constraints’ facing girls in achieving their aims; and the impact of the education system and its delivery on ambitions and ‘gender balancing’. This will include discussion of social notions of ‘gender’ and ‘gender roles’ as well as the work of Ugandan feminism.

    The term 'gender balancing' is utilised in the title, as the term was frequently adopted by participants when discussing the issue. The findings of the study constitute a modest contribution to the study of gender inequality and female access to education and livelihood opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa and particularly in Uganda today.

    Literature Review

    Context of Gender relations

    The present context of gender relations in Uganda is one of considerable gender inequality (World Bank, 2005; Kwesiga, 2002; Nabacwa, 2001). According to the Ugandan feminist Nabacwa:

    …women and girls…lag behind men and boys in all the social, political and economic aspects of [contemporary Ugandan] life

    (2001: 53)

    This inequality persists despite the considerable contribution of women to the Ugandan economy. Women have taken on many economic responsibilities and are described as “the backbone of the rural economy”

    (Snyder, 2002a: 78)

    Many Ugandan women are severely overburdened, working far in excess of the number of hours of the average Ugandan male (Kwesiga, 2002). This is particularly the case in rural areas with the social and familial expectation that women carry out the double-role of agricultural and domestic 'duties'. This has a number of serious consequences as illustrated in figure 1.


    Figure 1: Linkages between women’s disproportionate workload and poverty - Source: Reproduced with kind permission from World Bank (2005: 26).

    Despite all this, Ugandan women have been credited with contributing the most to the civil society organisations and cooperatives that have developed as part of livelihood strategies (Tripp, 1998). One of the key obstacles to gender equality in Uganda is the persistent and pervasive influence of cultural traditions which have acted (or been enacted) to disadvantage women (Mugyenyi, 1998). This is well illustrated by the World Bank’s (2005) Strategic Country Gender Assessment, displayed as figure 2, a more readable version of table 2.


    Figure 2: Table reproduced with kind permission from World Bank (2005: 41 citing Mukasa et al. 2004) showing the influence of Culture on Gender disparities by different poverty determinants in Uganda.

    Figure 2, Illustrates notably the issues of high female illiteracy rates, very low female participation in the labour force and very low female land ownership.

    The government of Uganda (GoU) has responded by accommodating women’s organisations (Kikampikaho and Kwesiga, 2002) and committing to various legislation and political agreements (Nabacwa, 2001). Despite legislative moves including provisions for gender equality in the national constitution (GoU, 1995) many women are unaware of their rights (Mbire-Barungi, 1999; Touray, 2006). Furthermore there have been problems with the implementation of these legislative provisions (World Bank, 2005). Therefore the awareness of participants about their rights as enshrined particularly in the constitution will be examined, as will the actual application (or otherwise) of laws and policies designed to promote gender equality.

    The issue of women’s political representation, Uganda provides an interesting case study. The government has appointed some female candidates to high profile positions, including to the post of Vice President (Snyder, 2002c). Unfortunately however greater political participation for women does not necessarily equate to greater representation of the concerns of Ugandan women (Goetz, 1998; Mugyenyi, 1998; Johnson et al., 2003). The issue of women in politics will be examined through the perceptions of participants regarding their impact and whether or not they constitute role-models for female students.

    Definition of Gender Balancing

    The term ‘Gender Balancing’ was a phrase often used by participants during the research, in place of what might be termed ‘Women's empowerment’. ‘Empowerment’ is a subjective term with an interpretative nature that seems to have been overlooked in many attempts to ‘define’ it. Mugyenyi argues that ‘empowering women’ is:

    systematic change towards gender equity or the process of weakening structures of female subordination

    1998: 133

    Mugyenyi and Nabacwa’s (2001) definitions of the term seem to fail to address the concept’s element of subjectivity. In contrast Naila Kabeer (2001:18) cautions that:

    not everyone accepts that empowerment can be defined let alone measured. For many feminists, the value of the concept lies precisely in its ‘fuzziness’

    However Kabeer (2001) argues that empowerment must be outlined as a concept before attempts can be made to measure it. It seems logical that by enquiring as to participants own opinions regarding the concept an investigation can better establish a benchmark by which to measure empowerment initiatives. This is also supported by Nabacwa’s (2001) reminder that many ‘grassroots women’ lack the means or opportunity to express what the term means to them. This therefore could constitute an empowering act for a population not usually consulted for their opinions (Scheyvens, Scheyvens and Murray, 2003). Such methods would form the basis for a participatory approach that would be more sensitive to local dimensions and could also provide a rebuke to critics who claim that women’s rights are a ‘western import’ and not compatible with Ugandan culture.

    Much work on the topic of furthering women’s empowerment fails to acknowledge the importance of men in the process (for example see: Sperandio, 2000; Mugyenyi, 1998). As Kaufman asserts:

    we must reach men so that interventions for women and girls are not derailed by male resistance

    (2004: 19)

    This focus on ‘gender relations’ 1 therefore clearly prescribes the involvement of men in efforts to achieve gender balancing (for a good example, see Johnson et al, 2003 2).

    Ugandan Feminism

    Mills and Sseqakiryanga (2002) explain that some Ugandan social science work has sought to develop a Ugandan ownership of gender balancing efforts, often rejecting the label 'feminism' in favour of 'womanism'. Kwesiga (2002c) describes some of the differences in context which form the reasoning for this local particularity including the homogenizing assumption of the 'African women' and the 'nuclear family' as applicable 'starting points' for gender balancing efforts.

    Ugandan feminism has been criticised for not reaching rural and poor women, largely because of a reliance on inaccessible media for raising awareness (Nabacwa, 2001). As a result, those most in need of the advocacy work have been inclined to dismiss it as irrelevant to them (Nabacwa, 2001). This study will aim to establish the relevance of ‘gender balancing’ to contemporary Ugandan society and investigate the connections and communications of Ugandan feminist activism with more marginalised Ugandans.

    Girls and Education

    There is a wide body of literature supporting the education of girls, citing the emancipatory potential of education (GCE, 2005; Sperandio, 2000). The UN MDG progress report of 2006 highlights that success in meeting the ‘Second Goal’ 3 depends upon addressing spatial inequalities as part of the effort to tackle gender inequalities (see figure 3) (UN, 2006). This study will therefore investigate the relevance of rural or urban location and upbringing as an influence on the education of girls.


    Figure 3: Pie chart showing correlation between nature of residence and percentage of children out of school (Source: Reproduced with kind permission from UN, 2006: 7).

    Morley (2005) in her study, discusses the influence on ‘gender relations’ of women in leadership positions within the school. Sperandio (2000) interviewed an impressively large sample for her data with a range of research methods. Both authors argue that schools have a vital role to play in encouraging or developing ambitions of girls to take leadership roles in the future, not just through the ability to attain extra responsibilities, but also particularly through the invitation of female 'careers' speakers, women in school-leadership and the recruitment of female teachers. However Sperandio reports that many students (of both sexes) lack respect for their female teachers.

    As covered in figure 1 it has been common that women's economic empowerment (including through employment as teachers) has not changed the expectations of society regarding their traditional 'duties' which society expects of them as women. This illustrates that women’s economic empowerment has often not led to a more comprehensive balancing of gender power relations. This is a phenomenon noted in a number of different post-conflict contexts by El-Bushra (2003). Therefore female teachers are often still afforded less respect, even by other women and girls than their male counterparts. This signals the depth of the challenge facing gender balancing efforts.

    Based on the developing wisdom of involving men and boys in efforts to achieve ‘gender balancing’ this study will seek to determine the attitudes of males to such efforts and ways in which the interaction between males and females, particularly in the classroom, may assist or challenge gender balancing efforts and influence girl’s ambitions.

    A considerable amount of recent research highlights the important issue of the ‘quality’ of education received by girls, often as a result of their treatment by male teachers, including such issues as harsher disciplinary procedures and sexual abuse and caution that this prevents many girls from attending school (Kikampikaho and Kwesiga, 2002; Sperandio, 2000; GCE, 2005; DFID, 2006).

    This literature shows that the effort to increase female enrolment is, by itself, not enough and that concerted efforts must be made to ensure that the education that girls receive is safe and of a high (and equitable) standard. The literature shows that the education of girls (and its gender-equitable delivery) is a very important challenge for policy makers and society.


    Primary research for this study was carried out in the form of 23 in-depth interviews in five secondary schools in the Jinja district of Uganda and interviews with two additional 'key informants'.
    The schools where research was conducted are shown and described in figures 4-9 and table 1. One of the two 'key informants' was a senior officer of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission (UHRC) and the other was the head of a women's NGO based in Jinja. Two in-depth interviews were conducted with these 'key informants'. Both of these interviews were conducted at the offices of each respective organisation 4 (see figure 9). They were both chosen for their direct professional connection with the issues of girls education and tackling the issue of 'gender balancing' in contemporary Ugandan society. The opportunity was taken to obtain the representative's views on issues previously highlighted by students and teachers, adding extra depth (through providing an institutional context) to the study.

    Since a key aspect of the research is the influence of the school environment, a variety of schools were chosen to ensure a diverse sample of school environments. The school-based research was approached with the aim of investigating the views of female students as well as teachers where possible.


    Table 1: A description of the varying school-environments of the schools chosen (Source: Author)


    Figure 4: A view from the grounds of ‘School A’, showing its rural location (Source: Reproduced with kind permission from Currie, 2007).


    Figure 5: Main entrance to School B. The tidy appearance suggesting a relative financial security (Source: Reproduced with kind permission from Currie, 2007).


    Figure 6: A view of the grounds within the classroom areas of School B, also showing the schools ’well-maintained’ nature (Source: Reproduce with kind permission from Currie, 2007).


    Figure 7: The grounds of School E showing the colonial-era age of the school and its state of dis-repair, suggesting a low availability of financial capital (Source: Author).


    Figure 8: School C’s main school building, this photograph shows the relatively good condition of facilities at the school and suggests it also is relatively financially secure (Source: Author).

    The view of children and youth in development studies is a neglected yet important issue with children tending to be:

    ...taken for granted – seen but not heard, acted upon but not with

    (Scheyvens, Scheyvens and Murray, 2003: 173 citing Bowden, 1998: 282)


    Figure 9: The Office of the Jinja branch of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC); one of the studies key Informants was a senior officer at this organisation. This photograph shows the surprisingly small size of the office given the importance of the organisation’s mission (Source: Author).

    In-depth and semi-structured qualitative interviews were employed for this entire study. As Rubin and Rubin (2005) explain, in-depth interviews are a necessity in cases where the researcher anticipates that participants will need to explain their answers, cite examples or describe experiences. For example qualitative interviewing is often used to help explain the “glass ceiling”(p.4) faced by women in work (Rubin and Rubin, 2005). This is particularly relevant since this issue is closely connected with the theme of this research.

    Corden and Sainsbury (2005) argue that often reader interpretation of research based on qualitative research methods is complicated by a failure to explain the process of selecting, editing and transcribing quotations. For this reason this methodology will attempt to explain this process.

    For the process of producing this study it was decided that use of “verbatim quotations” (Corden and Sainsbury, 2005: 4) would be employed with narrative commenting upon their significance. Quotations which fairly represented the range of views on each issue were included and in certain cases, often when addressing particularly important issues and/or areas of consensus, a number of quotations were used and compiled as a 'figure' which was then referenced in the narrative. This helped to give a more 'open' account of the interview data. For the transcription of interview data a convention adapted from Tracey (2002) was applied.

    Preparatory work for this study was particularly inspired by the recommendations of Greig, Taylor and MacKay (2007:90), who caution that “the child is always so much more than it is professionally convenient to believe” and therefore emphasise the importance of questioning assumptions about children as research participants.

    Greig et al. (2007) also warn that the children's responses may be influenced by the location of the research. In this study participants were given the chance to pick the site (within the school grounds for students and teachers of course) to ensure they felt as comfortable as possible. When carrying out interviews utmost care was taken to fully consider the developmental stage of the students as recommended by Greig et al. (2007) and Save the Children (2007).


    Table 2: Some of the approaches and influences upon methods taken to ensure an ethical research methodology (order not necessarily reflective of considered importance) (Source: Author)

    It seems logical that conducting the research in the manner outlined in table 2 was not just beneficial from an ethical basis but also due to the quality of research that could be conducted.

    Also thankfully in this study, it was often found, echoing the findings of Macintyre (1993 cited by Scheyvens, Wodak and Scheyvens, 2003) and Robson (1997) that the researcher’s interest in the lives of participants was matched by their interest in the life of the researcher and an interest in ‘what life is like in England’. Answering the questions of participants helped to mitigate ‘power’ imbalances and meant that they were able to ‘gain’ something (on a personal level) from the interaction.

    The practice of 'First-world' researchers researching 'Third-world' participants raises many complex ethical considerations. However it should be noted that “Not to look, to touch, to engage can be a hostile act” (Madge, 1997: 120 citing Scheper-Hughes, 1992: 27) and that research can help to challenge pervasive power-imbalances on many levels (Madge, 1997). In seeking to adopt principles of 'participatory research' the researcher can give a voice and platform for the concerns and views of the marginalized (Chambers, 1997).
    A summary of the interview research conducted is detailed in Figure 10.

    Figure 10 – The participants to the research, including their association with school or other group and the duration of the interview where possible (Source: Author).

    Results and Discussion


    It is clear that there is a significant bias in the ambition of students towards so-called ‘professional’ jobs (see table 3). The stated aims of the male participants who took part in the focus group interview also generally matched this trend. However their perceptions of the factors which would influence their chance of realising their ambitions, were significantly different to those of female students.


    Table 3: A table illustrating frequency of responses in favour of each ‘ambition’ by female participants (This is an exhaustive list which includes professions mentioned as a second or maybe third choice).

    Opportunities and Constraints

    In this study participants were questioned with an emphasis on attaining perceived ‘opportunities’ and ‘constraints’ to their ambitions. This was inspired by the ‘Sustainable Livelihoods Approach’ framework (DFID, 1999). It proved difficult to gather the relevant feedback on these issues and sometimes it was obtained through a more drawn out process, responses were in some aspects varied but predictably focussed around issues of finance and family support.

    Financial capital

    The financial demands of higher education were a key concern of participants when considering their chances of realising their ambitions:

    they have made higher institutions a mansion

    (teacher-- C5)

    …now they are saying that they have to pay some may not acquire that education

    (Nurse – B5)

    This adds to the concerns expressed in the literature (see DFID, 2006; Kwesiga, 2002).

    Social Capital

    For this study the role of social capital (or the support of family and friend networks) in supporting participants is a key component of the ‘approach’. Participants were questioned as to the relevance of this factor in influencing their ambitions and this was subsequently treated as either an ‘opportunity’ or ‘constraint’ issue. To many participants the support of family and friends was an important factor in influencing their futures:

    They, ... do help me by discussing what I’ve been learning at school

    (Female student-- C3)

    For some respondents this provided a key, determining factor in their future ambitions as clearly illustrated by the following student:

    …But since they’re supportive at least I have some hope”

    (Female student – C4)

    This response shows that to this student the support of her family and friends is so important that without it she would not be able to have “hope” of achieving her ambitions.

    From the data, one central theme was that financial capital was just one of a number of important factors influencing girl’s ambitions. As one female student explained:

    financial support can be handy(?) but you also have to have the trust in yourself that you can make it to there

    (Female student – A2)

    Another student mentioned that she was concerned that directly sexist practice by male management would hinder her chances of achieving her ambitions:

    ... as a girl, there are big things in my way like usually in Uganda we want go for a job all they want is sex the bosses…

    (Female student-- C4)

    These examples highlight and connect to less quantifiable socio-cultural influences affecting girls ambitions in Uganda echoing GCE (2005) and also emphasise the importance of ‘self-belief’.

    Domestic work

    Students (other than those from the relatively wealthy School A) were generally tied to various and often considerable commitments to household work, as shown in the following example:

    Cleaning the house such things … I’m the first born actually [mm] so if she’s [mother] not around maybe I take good care of the children I take the responsibilities

    (Female student – B2)

    These commitments were not mentioned specifically as a constraining issue, but can be considered as such due to the resulting reduction in time available for study (see Kwesiga. 2002 and World Bank, 2005). This is especially so in the case of students explicitly having to prioritise this work above study:

    I first to do the housework...and I go to them [homework] later

    (Female student – D2)

    Some students cited the responsibility of caring for their siblings which was also referred to as a reason for their parent’s difficulties in supporting them financially through education.

    Definition of Development

    Participants were asked to provide ‘their definition of the term (or concept) ‘development’’. This produced some interesting results with a significant majority being of a communitarian and/or family-centred nature. This feature is best expressed in figure 11.


    Figure 11: Selected quotes from participant responses for a ‘personal definition’ of ‘development’.

    There was only one clear alternative kind of definition to those shown in figure 11, this definition focussed on the process of ‘industrialisation’.

    …. we have set up industries (yeah) that’s development”.

    (Female student C2)

    A number of participants based their definition on ‘standards of living’ and/or ‘basic needs’. Only one participant explicitly conceptualised development as something concerning self-determination, this is shown in figure 11d.

    The conceptualisations shown here are not surprising considering the wide body of literature (Kwesiga, 2002; Snyder, 2002a; World Bank, 2005; DFID, 2006) which states that women are more likely to consider the family when it comes to the division of income for example and therefore also development. The difference between male and female conceptualisations of development and the relationship between 'development' and family welfare would be an interesting topic for further study.

    This study attempted to determine female student’s conceptualisations of ‘development’ as a proxy for what they would like to see occur in their future. This helps to establish the context towards which they aim and in which they would like their future ambitions to be set. This also can be considered as, in part an explanation of their own ambitions for the future, assuming that they would wish to actively contribute to their country’s or community’s ‘development’.

    This data suggests that girls tend to possess ambitions in which they imagine themselves aiding the development of the country and supporting the notion that gender balancing aids development ( Mugyenyi, 1998; Kwesiga, 2002; Snyder, 2002a; World Bank, 2005; DFID, 2006).

    Definition of Gender Balancing

    Also of concern to the study was views on what ‘gender balancing’ should be and how the process should be carried out. This was based on the recommendations of Kabeer (2001) and Nabacwa (2001). Whilst often definitions themselves shared similarity it was largely the subsequent discussions which yielded differences of opinion. By enquiring as to what the participants considered gender balancing ‘should be’ and ‘what it meant to them', a broader and more in-depth discussion of the concept was encouraged. A sample of ‘definitions’ are shown in Figure 12.


    Figure 12: Selected examples of participant’s definitions of gender balancing

    Participant’s definitions showed a similar broad concept of ‘gender balancing’ (i.e. figure 12b and c) largely avoiding a more specific definition. There were some exceptions (notably ‘d)’ and ‘e)’) which described gender balancing as concerning the labour market and domestic work and point ‘a)’ which approached the concept in a more individual and rights-based philosophy of self-expression and quality of life. This questioning was largely intended as a first-step to a more in-depth discussion on the concept; although the definitions suggest that policy makers and advocates need to consider the possibility (and desirability) of the gender balancing message being interpreted as solely concerning issues of the gendered division of labour.

    Debate on gender balancing

    During the ensuing discussions, as to be expected with a large sample size, views were expressed on both sides of the ‘spectrum’. Some participants were unsatisfied by current progress, this is an issue which will be examined in this section. The male (mostly) students and teachers however, expressed generally hostile or dissenting opinions, for example:

    …it [gender balancing] has advantages and disadvantages eh? The most part is... disadvantage because they are no longer giving the respect

    (Male student –A1)

    The views of these participants suggested that they were undertaking what could be termed a strategic accommodation, approving of gender balancing only on their own terms in which they would still be the sole decision-maker. This supports the findings on male attitudes of Mills and Ssewakiryanga (2002).

    This set of opposition to ‘gender balancing’ requires more in-depth research, however it does demonstrate a strong opposing force and feeling that the empowerment of women and peaceful coexistence are mutually exclusive. It also supports the conclusions of Kauffman (2004) and Ruxton (2004) (also supported by data in Johnson et al., 2003 and Mills and Ssewakiryanga, 2002) in their calls for the greater involvement of men in gender empowerment efforts. Johnson et al. (2003) emphasise the need for gender balancing efforts to reassure men that they can gain too from women's empowerment and to be conscious of potential and actual impacts upon men's self-image. It can be seen that without involving the participants above in the process they will likely form a considerable opposing force to gender balancing. Therefore male attitudes to female's ambitions is a topic deserving further study.

    It was not just men however who criticised some interpretations of ‘gender balancing’. One female teacher at School C (who defined the concept in terms of economic empowerment, land rights and equal opportunities), stated that women have “misunderstood women’s rights” and shared an opinion with some of the male participants that women are ’going too far’ in attempting to take part in decision making. Similar views were expressed by a male teacher at School D and a male teacher at School B. The former called for “sensitisation” of people so that they ‘realise’ that gender balancing ‘does not mean’ “two men in a … family” and that women should avoid decision making. This illustrates the normative understanding of gender roles. The latter blames ‘activists’ for using it“to their advantage to...incite … the young ladies” .

    Opposition to feminism on the grounds of its potential for causing conflict is well documented in the literature particularly by Mills and Ssewakiryanga (2002) and Johnson et al. (2003). However it is important to consider that conflict has been recognised as a feature of any positive social change (Coser, 1957).

    It would be an inaccurate analysis to suggest that criticism of contemporary gender balancing was not present in those who expressed admiration for its principles. The participant quoted below is one such example:

    …thanks to women’s emancipation we can be what we would love to be

    (Female student-- C4)

    Later in the interview she adds that “… they’re taking it [gender balancing] too far” citing the 2007 high court ruling against the gender-biased former adultery law 7 (see World Bank, 2005: 39). This constitutes a very conservative interpretation of the court ruling.

    Urban-Rural difference in status of women

    After the participant’s views and definitions of the concepts of ‘Development’ and ‘Gender balancing’ were determined a handout was read by the participants (see: GoU, 1995). The handout contained all of the sections of the Ugandan constitution directly concerning ‘women’s rights’.

    The participant’s knowledge of these provisions was investigated. In general participants said (at least) that they were aware of the rights on the handout but added later that many people in rural areas would not be aware of them. The issue of an urban/rural difference in the social positions of women was a view which received significant consensus in this study, as shown in Figures 13 and 14.


    Figure 13: Selected Comments from the Doctor and Nurse ‘team’ at School B (B5) regarding the rural/urban differences in gender balancing.

    The comments in figure 13 connect the gender inequality in rural areas particularly with the workload expected of rural women. Issues of women being expected to work for longer hours than men are highlighted in Kwesiga (2002), Snyder (2002) and World Bank (2005). Here the participant’s frame the issue as an important indicator of rural gender inequality.


    Figure 14: More selected comments on the Urban/Rural divide regarding gender balancing.

    The comments in Figure 14, illustrate a significant urban/rural inequity in terms of the status of women. The work of Mbire-Barungi (1999), DFID (2006) and Touray (2006) highlight the issue of women being unaware of their rights; comment c) illustrates the particular severity of this problem in rural areas. The most commonly cited solution to this situation was an increased reach of education into rural areas as shown in Figure 15.


    Figure 15: Selected comments regarding views of the emancipatory power of education.

    The comments in Figure 15 show agreement with the emancipatory potential of education argued almost to the point of consensus in the academic literature (DFID, 2006; GCE, 2005; Kwesiga, 2002; Snyder, 2002a; Sperandio, 2000).

    The comment from the careers advisor (figure 4.6c) is particularly insightful highlighting the influence of lack of awareness/education and culture in the suffering of women. This comment mirrors Paulo Freire's work on conscientisation through education (Freire, 1973).

    The pedagogical theories developed by Paulo Freire were based upon the principles of the need to raise awareness or 'critical consciousness' in oppressed groups. This has been applied more specifically to attempts to utilise education to reverse engrained social gender-based inequalities (Mugyenyi, 1998; Mbowa, 1998) as referred to by the participant (Career’s advisor – C1).

    However it is important to consider that girls' access to education is often hindered by the burden of the domestic (and sometimes agricultural) work expected of them (World Bank, 2005).

    One participant mentioned “village meetings” (Female student - C3) as an important tool to further women’s rights in rural areas. This is a valuable suggestion when considering the current obstacles in (formal) educational-access , the evidence of a lack of awareness in rural areas (Mbire-Barungi, 1999; DFID, 2006; Touray, 2006) and high illiteracy rates (World Bank, 2005).

    NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations)

    Another participant mentioned the work of NGOs as a means to furthering gender balancing in rural communities.

    …they [NGOs] talk about rights of people in the country, I think they should be… getting maybe those people from those offices and Headquarters …to the villages, they will teach about what is supposed to be done

    (female student – D2)

    This connects to the criticisms in the literature that the success of women’s rights advocacy groups has been limited to ‘the elites’ (Nabacwa, 2001), given the statement’s reference to their employees being in “those offices and headquarters” 8. However participants were generally positive about the work of women’s rights organisations. NGO's sponsorship of female university entrants and payment of school fees and costs for female students was commended by one student (E3). Another student added that:

    …they are doing a very good job in helping women to stand …”

    (Female student – E1)

    Whilst a significant number considered that they had been successful in urban areas, it was pointed out that they needed to reach rural areas more, as shown in Figure 16.


    Figure 16: Selected comments on the need for Women’s NGOs to be more effective in reaching rural areas

    This can also be seen in the comment of the careers advisor in Figure 16a who highlights the problem that particularly the (predominately rural) poor often do not have access to the mediums that these organisations have relied on for their awareness raising work (Nabacwa, 2001).

    The Human Rights officer of UHRC added that UHRC do not:

    …have enough resources to conduct the sensitisation we would have loved to conduct…”

    The data suggests that NGOs have played and have an important role to play in efforts to increase women’s emancipation yet caution of a problematic failure to reach the most marginalized.

    Male opposition to gender balancing efforts

    Some comments showed an assumption that if sensitisation and education were provided then gender balancing would consequently follow, although the comments of another student gave a perhaps more nuanced insight:

    They’ve [NGOs] been a little successful, just a little cos some people are, ... shallow minded, so like the husband can I say? Implores them, no they’re telling you wrong things, don’t believe them … and besides (?) especially those in the village only look down to the house work so, they gain, but a little”

    (Female student – C4)

    In this comment she argues that the lack of economic opportunities in the rural areas acts as a barrier to women's empowerment through income generating opportunities. This comment also highlights that the failure to successfully encourage and involve men in the process of gender balancing has led to them hampering efforts (see Mills and Ssewakiryanga, 2002; Ruxton, 2004; Kauffman, 2004 and Johnson et al., 2003).

    Figure 17 shows an interesting example, chosen by one of the students of conflict with boys over gender balancing, as a result of the way that her class was being taught about gender issues.


    Figure 17: Excerpt from an interview with a female student (C4)

    These comments show that even if schools incorporate teaching on gender balancing, they must make a full effort to aid the understanding of the male students as well as the females, so that the males do not present a resistance to well intentioned efforts and use the lesson as a means to forcibly reproduce further gender imbalance.

    The awarding of additional points to female university entry candidates (as a means of affirmative action) was mentioned as something which men are opposed to:

    …that is wrong it’s not helping in development anywhere because I should imagine since they are saying that we are equal why should they favour them?

    (Male Student – A1)

    This commentary highlights the perception of some men that 'affirmative action' is not fair to them. Whilst espousing a belief in gender balancing, this participant fails to see how affirmative action can help achieve this aim. This shows that there is a need for awareness raising amongst men regarding the rationale involved in forming this and other laws related to gender balancing (see Mbire-Barungi, 1999).

    Application of the constitution

    One student participant was particularly exercised by the issue of legislative provisions not being applied in reality (see Mugyenyi, 1998 citing Mugyisha, 1992; World Bank, 2005). The student cites an example in figure 18, which she explained had recently featured in the Ugandan media. It featured the experience the family of a recently deceased high-ranking military officer in the Ugandan Army.


    Figure 18: Example of the failure of ‘real-world’ application of constitutional rights.

    One teacher (B4) recommended that in order for the constitution to be applied and awareness of its provisions raised that teaching specifically focussed on it should be made a compulsory part of the curriculum. He a lso added that:  

    …even at secondary level little little (emphasis) is known about the constitution

    (Teacher – B4)

    These comments suggest that the Ugandan education system is not playing an efficient role in raising the next generation’s awareness of the country’s constitution.

    ‘Tradition’ and ‘culture’

    The issue of the failure in application of constitutional ‘women’s rights’ provisions connects particularly with the issue of the impact of tradition on gender balancing (see figure 19). The most relevant provision of the constitution to this matter is sub-section 6 of ‘Article 33: Rights of Women’, which reads:

    Laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status are prohibited by this Constitution

    (GoU, 1995)

    Tradition and culture were often mentioned as having harmful effects on women, some notable examples are shown in figure 19.


    Figure 19: Selected comments regarding traditions and women.

    These comments show the variety of ways in which ‘tradition’ has been used to favour men and result in the suffering of women, these include matters of forced marriage and bride price, circumcision, denial of the right to education and land inheritance. This corresponds with the conclusions of Mugyenyi (1998), Kwesiga (2002) and World Bank (2005), explaining how the successful implementation of gender balancing efforts, even when participants are aware of legal provisions, is made particularly difficult by an often contradictory socio-cultural context (which gender balancing initiatives must confront).

    Mukasa (2007) explains that the caring duties assigned to women in Bugandan culture sometimes involved advising other women to leave abusive relationships. This can be seen as a means in which the local cultural traditions could help to further gender balancing. However the participants to this study highlighted the negative influences of cultural traditions on gender balancing.

    Gender equitable education?

    When questioned participants were in broad agreement that the education they had received was provided in a gender-equitable manner. However after questioning the way girls felt about ‘putting their hand up in class’ some contradicting results were elicited. A significant number replied that many female students felt too shy to do this and feared the response of teasing from male students if they were to get the answer wrong: 

    Because when when you stand up and you give a wrong answer and some boys can make funny noise, comments which are not good, so you ... don’t feel good

    (Female student – E1)

    Another student added that:

    …they [teachers] mostly pick the boys to discuss

    (Female student - C3)

    She added that female teachers were more balanced with their selection of class members to contribute to discussions, but added that a more complex problem is that even without this bias it is rare for girls to possess the confidence to put up their hands and speak in class (see Figure 20).


    Figure 20: Excerpt from interview regarding the issue of girl’s participation and gender inequity in the classroom

    In order to overcome these problems some girls called for harsher punishment for boys who tease girls and for teachers to select girls to give answers as often as they do boys:

    Actually, should not allow those kids if they make [someone] feel bad someone [who] gets a wrong answer you are not supposed to call names

    (Female student – E1)

    Another student stressed the need to evoke greater confidence in female students (see figure 21).


    Figure 21: Comments on improving female student’s participation in class discussions

    One female student called for a change in the way boys and teachers see girls (E3).

    Another student commented that: “the boys laugh at us” (Female student-- D4) and also argued that in an all-female class this shyness would not be present. These comments show the impact of boy’s behaviour on female student’s confidence levels and therefore the quality of the educational experience that they are able to receive. This data adds to the literature regarding the quality and gender-sensitivity of education provision (Kikampikaho and Kwesiga, 2002; Muhwezi, 2003; Sperandio, 2000) with a more specific issue not seen by the literature consulted: that of female students being prevented from contributing to class discussions due to teasing from boys, bias in teacher selection of pupils to answer questions and a lack of confidence.

    The comments regarding the low number of female teachers and the tendency of female teachers to be more equal in selecting students to answer questions in class, constitute evidence to support the increased recruitment of women to train as teachers echoing the recommendations of Muhwezi (2003).

    The comments of teachers and students in figures 22a/b, show ways in which education can be made more gender-sensitive, via, for instance the encouragement of girls to learn vocational subjects.


    Figure 22a: Ways to make education more gender-sensitive – vocational subjects

    Also mentioned was the opening up of traditionally ‘male-only’ subjects to female students (see Figure 22b) (see GCE, 2005).


    Figure 22b: Ways to make education more gender sensitive – encouraging participation in traditionally male-dominated subjects and teaching.

    Women in leadership

    There was a clear consensus amongst female students of a positive attitude towards women in l eadership positions. For example:

    …they’d be there to fight for the women’s rights within the government…

    (Female Student – B3)

    The practice of inviting female speakers to talk to students about career options was cited by one student as an encouraging and inspirational method of motivation to help female students achieve their aims (see C1), complimenting the findings of Sperandio (2000). This suggests that this is a tactic that should be widely adopted in order to encourage and motivate female students.

    Female leaders were seen as looking after women’s interests and rights. Although even amongst the female students the idea of a woman becoming President, was objected to on a number of occasions:

    … it's not better for a woman to be a President, better maybe under the President

    (Female student – D2)

    Although the idea also received support. 

    I think girls would really enjoy this”

    (Female student – B2)

    In general it seems that the participant’s views are that more leadership roles for women in education and society in general, are beneficial to women’s lives (see Sperandio, 2000 and Morley, 2005).

    Conclusions and Recommendations

    This study highlights the importance of family and friends/social capital in influencing the ambitions of female students. The study also shows the importance of financial capital in determining, to a large extent, student’s choices regarding Higher Education and therefore their opportunities to pursue certain ambitions. For many students the hope of a scholarship is the only means for them to access higher education. Therefore the provision of scholarships for female students must be prioritised.

    Importantly the data also shows that socio-cultural practices and traditions are key factors affecting girl’s chances of realising their ambitions. It is therefore necessary for gender balancing efforts to confront cultural traditions which are harmful to girl’s pursuit of their ambitions.

    Female students viewed development as a process which should lead to the increased well being of the family and community and others in general. It can be seen from this data that gender balancing is good for development and therefore should be a key consideration of development efforts.

    Data collected from this study showed a (predominately) male opposition to gender balancing which often involved male demands that empowerment takes place within boundaries determined to suit them and which doesn’t challenge traditional male-decision making hegemony. This study highlighted the importance of involving men in the process of gender balancing regarding particularly the need for equal treatment of girls in the classroom and women, at work and at home.

    A consensus was apparent of a more serious case of gender inequality in rural areas, where women are often unaware of their rights and are denied access to education. Ugandan feminist advocacy has been criticised for failing to sufficiently reach rural areas and women’s NGOs have also been criticised for their reliance on media which is inaccessible to poor and rural Ugandans. As well as extended NGO activity, greater educational provision was often cited as the solution to serious issues of gender inequality in rural areas and education was seen by participants as a force for gender balancing. It is also necessary to prioritise the holding of village meetings and education of village elders.

    A key issue raised by a number of participants was of boys taunting girls who gave incorrect answers in class. Participants recommended harsh punishments, an effort to increase the confidence of female pupils and a greater number of female teachers. A gender-sensitive, equitable school environment is clearly a key factor in helping to raise girl’s confidence and achievements at school and should therefore be prioritised in education policy. The teaching to girls of vocational subjects and the promotion of traditionally ‘male-only’ subjects to them were also seen as good practice in furthering a gender-equitable curriculum.

    It seems that the participants involved in this study possessed little knowledge of the country’s constitution. The education system neglects to directly teach its provisions and one teacher recommended introducing ‘Constitutional studies’ as a compulsory school subject. A case has also been made for a ‘Gender studies’ subject (Muhwezi, 2003). These proposals are deserving of more focussed future study.

    Also the issue of inviting female speakers was discussed as an inspiring technique to encourage girls to 'aim high’. Participants showed support for women in positions of leadership, both within education and society in general. Therefore it is necessary for schools to utilise potential female role-models and encourage their female students to aim for leadership roles.


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    The author would like to thank Dr Kenny Lynch for his supervision of the dissertation that this essay was edited from. Also the financial support offered to support the fieldwork costs by Dame Janet Trotter through the Dame Janet Trotter Fund was greatly appreciated.

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    The Ambitions of Secondary School Girls in Jinja District, Uganda in the context of ‘Gender Balancing’ by  Jonathan Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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