Women Who Dare: Susan Akajo Oregede Challenges Gender Norms in Uganda
Susan Akajo Oregede has dedicated the past several years of her life to changing gender norms in Uganda, daring to challenge resistance, tradition, and even her community’s leaders to address issues like women’s equality, gender-based violence, and adolescent sexuality.
As the technical manager for Pathfinder’s Gender Roles Equality and Transformation (GREAT) project in Uganda, Susan uses a daring and innovative approach called “looking inward” to examine and challenge her own perceptions of gender norms as a means of better addressing gender issues in the communities she serves. As a native Ugandan shaped by her communities’ norms and values, Susan looks inward first, recognizing that better understanding her own gender biases will give her valuable perspective, making her better able to help others challenge their own similar ideas about gender roles.
Bravery isn’t exactly a requirement of every job, but it certainly is in Susan’s case. She is an inspiring example of a “woman who dares” and one of many Pathfinders for whom challenging the status quo is a key part of both work and life.
Pathfinder’s Lauren McKown spoke with Susan to learn more about her work with the GREAT project, the “looking inward” approach, and how she overcomes resistance to change.
What do you think are some of the biggest barriers related to gender norms facing daring young women in Uganda today?
In my view, the biggest barrier to changing gender norms is within us. The way we perceive the issue of gender equality will affect our ability to influence other people to adopt gender equitable behaviors.Most barriers that young women face related to gender norms are social. Others are related to cultural values that make up particular societies and others relate to religion. Other barriers are personal. The fact that we are all shaped by cultures that discriminate against women means that we go through internal battles that affect the energy with which we tackle gender norms. Our inner feelings and perceptions, if not well addressed, bar us from confronting the gender issues head on.
In my view, the biggest barrier to changing gender norms is within us. The way we perceive the issue of gender equality will affect our ability to influence other people to adopt gender equitable behaviors. So in order to address that inner feeling, it is important to look inward first before attempting to look out.
How has “looking inward” changed your approach to your work?
Looking inward has enabled me and my colleagues to do our work with a lot of passion. Looking inward first is a very important aspect of our work on the GREAT project and I recommend anyone doing gender norm transformation to take this approach. Since we, the champions, came from the same communities in which we are working and are shaped by the same negative cultures, beliefs, and perceptions, looking inward first gives us the opportunity to reflect, dialogue, and challenge our own beliefs related to gender inequality before we move out to the community. Only then can we realize the benefits of change and develop the courage and confidence to champion this change in the communities we serve.
You have committed your career to addressing gender equality. What initially inspired you to pursue this kind of work?
My inspiration to be a gender champion came from my first job as a gender officer in 2000 with a microcredit program. During that time, I saw how women who received loans suffered at the hand of their husbands. The men would take away the loan and use the money to drink. The women would suffer the consequences, being the ones who had to pay it back. This made me realize how important, yet very challenging my role was as a fighter for women's rights.
Later as a gender-based violence officer working with survivors, I came face-to-face with different representations of gender-based violence. Although it was traumatizing, the smiles that engulfed their faces after being helped gave me the motivation to continue working as an advocate for violence- free relationships and communities.
Uganda has had some very daring women who have worked hard to make the difference we see in the lives of women today. They speak out on every aspect of gender discrimination without any fear or favor. Working with them has been a real inspiration to me.
Did you consider your work daring at the time?
This work has been daring and I still consider it daring. It is not easy in the community where I work to stand before elders, religious leaders, men and even women and tell them, for instance, that it is okay for a woman to decide the number of children she should have or that real men are those who help women with household chores. You risk being chase away. There are times when I have said things in public gatherings and people thought I was joking. It takes several meetings, courage, and persistence to make people see the benefits of gender equality. When I started my work as a champion for violence-free relationships, I wasn’t married yet and one day the participants challenged me saying I was just a young woman who did not know what it was like being married and therefore did not understand what I was talking about. You need a daring spirit to keep on.
As a part of GREAT, you tackle some challenging subjects like gender-based violence and adolescent sexuality. In your experience as someone from Uganda, working in Uganda, why is it important to be outspoken about these issues?
It is not easy in the community I work in to stand before elders, religious leaders, men and even women and tell them, for instance, that it is okay for a woman to decide the number of children she should have or that real men are those who help women with household chores.Sexuality education is not common among the young people in Uganda. In fact, it is shameful to talk about sex in public, or worse still, with a young adolescent. This has created an information gap among adolescents about their sexuality, increasing their vulnerability to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and inability to handle their puberty changes among others leading to school dropout.
I think the approach taken by GREAT is unique: trying to address the problem of gender-based violence and adolescent sexuality from the root cause by transforming people’s perceptions and social norms and targeting young people. Speaking out about these issues will lead to a generation of transformed young men and women and will ultimately contribute to improved sexual reproductive health and gender equality.
If you had one piece of advice for those who want to dare to make a difference for women, what would it be?
First, believe in your own message. Be courageous and be patient because it takes time before you can see the results of this work. Emphasize the benefits rather than the rights and get a few influential people from the community you serve on your side so you can build on the community level.
This post is part of Pathfinder's "Women Who Dare" series in celebration of International Women's Day 2013. Read more stories of daring women and learn how you can take action at www.pathfinder.org/WomenDare.