The security situation of women human rights defenders and other women in the Albertine region

Women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs) are both female and any other human rights defenders who engage in the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality as well as all women working on any issue related to human rights and fundamental freedoms individually and in association with others in any region of the world.

Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) work tirelessly for equality, justice, and peace. However, they do this work under conditions of discrimination, violence, impunity, and human rights violations that put their integrity and ability to support human rights at risk.

Hostility, harassment, and repression toward WHRDs come in specific ways related to their gender, ranging from verbal to sexual assault, by State and non-actors as well as their own colleagues, neighbors, partners, and family members.

Global Witness annual report into the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2019 shows the highest number of defenders have been murdered in a single year. 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 – an average of more than four people a week. Over 1 in 10 of those defenders killed were women.

“Often the backbone of their community, women tend to take on more of the responsibility of looking after children and elderly relatives, on top of trying to earn a living and work as activists. Women who act and speak out may also face gender-specific threats, including sexual violence. If other members of their household are defenders, they can become targeted too”.

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In the Albertine region of Uganda, historical and structural inequality and discrimination is a reality for the majority of women who live in the region. Women human rights defenders and others who face threats and intimidation in the region do so because of a lack of protection from the government and corrupt judicial processes which don’t consider the protection of women’s rights. This is evident in increasing cases of violation of human rights of women human rights defenders associated with domestic violence and the absence of property rights among others.

The region faces a crisis of violence and systematic human rights violations scattered throughout the region. Oil companies and agribusiness as well as wealthy private individuals and state officials are increasingly grabbing lands that formerly belonged to the community, militarization, dispossession of lands, and natural resources from rural peoples and communities, are some of the worrying situations that are occurring to varying degrees throughout the region.

Women are subjected to physical violence, sexual harassment, extrajudicial surveillance, death threats, and civic restrictions especially when they are undertaking their work.

Culture, tradition, custom, and religion are still beings used to limit the roles of women human rights defenders and other women. These are being used by those seeking approval to deny women their rights. Several women human rights defenders who spoke to the Albertine Watch reported that they have experienced verbal and online abuse to physical and sexual abuse which are being used to harm their reputations and delegitimize their work; for example, Janepher Batwaimasa of Navigator of Development Association in Hoima has been accused by the Resident District Commissioner RDC of Hoima of being ugly and with no sexual urge, other like Beatrice Rukanyanga have been threatened with death and arrest.

Perpetrators of violence against women human rights defenders are both state actors or non-state actors, including community leaders and individuals from tribal groups.

 Albertine Watch has noticed that many women human rights defenders do not recognize such attacks as human rights violations. For so long they have been perceiving those abuses, often condoned within their community, business as usual, and a result of local customs and traditions.

The ongoing Oil development project in the Albertine region have been imposed with no consideration of the rights to free, prior, and informed consent from the affected populations, as guaranteed under ILO Convention 169. This affects women in specific ways, especially those who have organized their communities against these projects.

The Oil development project has affected women in different ways including the exclusion of women from the economic benefits and negotiations of their rights to and properties. There has been an increase in violence against women, including domestic violence, human trafficking, and prostitution businesses are established for the employees of oil companies, road contractors among others.

Oil exploration activities in the Albertine region have fueled economic dependency for women as they are deprived of their livelihoods, such as small-scale food production. Many women have been displaced from their communities and many have also been assaulted, including sexually, by Uganda police, private security personnel, and the armies forces during forced evictions related to land acquisitions for the Tilenga and Kingfisher Oil development projects, sugar plantation, road constructions, and dams among others.

An example of several sexual violence committed on women during forced eviction includes that of 2014 and several others in recent times in which Two displaced women say they have been raped.  One, who did not give her name but agreed to speak on the record, describes what happened when she went back to pick cassava from her old garden.

“The guards detained me when I was trying to get some fresh cassava.  Four men pushed me to the ground and raped me.  I did report it to the police, but could not afford to get treated by a doctor,” she said.

At the police station in nearby Katanga, there is a notation in the official logbook that a woman came in to report the rape, but her file could not be found. Local community leaders said the displaced residents have zero access to medical aid and are suffering from malnutrition.

There has been rampant sexual harassment of rural women in oil workers camps, road construc­tion projects, and other oil-related infrastructures. Between 2014 up to date 500 young girls and women complained of men touching their private parts and trying to lure them into sexual relation­ships.

Available evidences gathered by the Albertine Watch indicates that male employees of companies and related devel­opments are the major perpetuators of violence against women informs of sexual harassment, assault, beating, bully­ing, and verbal abuses among others.

For example, several cases of vio­lence against women have been documented in Kigyayo where women were beaten by sugarcane plantation workers when they use paths near the plantation on their way to look for food and water to sustain families. Cases of rape and defilement in this area have become so rampant in recent times

Several women especially in the oil refinery area, Buliisa, and Kigyayo had been abandoned by men after displacement and compensation and their land grabbed; a situation that has forced some women into sex works in order to meet the needs of their families. These are particularly taking lace among sugar cane plantation affected communities and the Oil refinery area.

There is an increasing lack of understanding and appreciation of women`s rights most especially among the sugar­cane affected communities which has significantly hindered the majority of women from exercising their rights over land and other resources and benefits.

The militarization of conservation is another security issue that is affecting woman’s rights in the Albertine region. For example, since the commencement of active oil drilling and exploration activities in the region, the government stationed military person­nel (Uganda Peoples Defense Forces) in the areas where most of the oil wells are located. As a result, there is a fear of rape or beatings by soldiers sta­tioned in these areas. This has particularly affected women and communities living around areas such as Kabwoya and Bugungu Wildlife reserves among others.

The most affected sections of the community are the Women and children who normally enter the park to get firewood for cooking or handcraft ma­terials for making mats or grass for thatching their houses.

Generally, these situations have resulted into the negative impact on women’s livelihood and income, an increase in unpaid care and domestic work, violence against women and changes in gender roles.

Oil development and agribusiness projects have fueled land rush with its associated impacts including the violent and forced eviction of many women from their homes. There have been use of violence to force women and children from their homes to make way for the sugar plantation, road constructions and oil refinery. Forced evictions took place despite assertions from women that they had land ownership certificates. Homes were burned, bullets were fired and tear gas used, with reports of adults and children missing or presumed dead.

Margaret was one of the women who suffered first hand the impacts of forced displacement due to sugar plantation. She has to said this;

“What hurts me the most is that I am a Ugandan, living on Ugandan land but I am now a squatter and me and my children are left here. My children aren’t going to school as I can’t afford to pay for the fees. I have to walk for at least three miles in the hot sun to get to some paid work just so I can feed my family. I have not been able to feed them well – we eat one meal a day and what I cook has to last us for two days.”

As of today, most of these women are still living in makeshift camps and have received no compensation.

For example, Patience was forcefully evicted from her home by police in 2014 to make room for the opening of the Hoima sugar factory. Her husband died during the eviction and she fled with her children. She now lives in the displacement camp in Kigyayo, Kikube district.

“One day, we were at home and we heard screams. We didn’t have any warning before it happened. We didn’t know anything. They turned up and started evicting people forcefully. We didn’t know what was happening at first. The situation was not okay; they were violent and they were using guns, tear gas, and machetes. Women and children ran away with nowhere to go. Men were trying to rescue property before the police set it on fire. They took our goats, cows, chickens, and our whole home. Even now, we struggle to get food. I have to go and do some hard labor every day to feed my children. It is never enough. I go to work to dig for someone. When I fall sick, I get sent away and I can’t pay school fees. I get malaria on and off. It is the reality of life in the camp. I feel angry. We don’t even benefit from the sugar; all we have is suffering. Life is not good at all in the camp. We are living in bad conditions. We are getting malaria as we sleep with no doors and mosquitoes are coming in. We have diarrhea because of bad conditions and we are eating bad food. There is also theft in the camp because so many people have nothing. I live in fear for me and my children. Justice has never happened for us. We went to court but it came to nothing. We have not received one shilling of compensation. We reported it to the chairman of the camp and it was put in a civil case for land but we were not called to court. As long as we’re still living here, I can’t imagine a future for us. It is hard for women; we need land so we can get some money through agriculture.”

Mary was also forcefully evicted from her home. She now lives with her husband and children in the displacement camp.

“Our neighbors died during the eviction and I inhaled a lot of tear gas. During the eviction, women were violated. They were raped in isolated places and couldn’t run. Life is never the same now […] As a woman, I am broken. Before I could pay school fees and I had a small business on the land. I don’t think I have any chance of that now. I walk for five miles to dig for people. I go with my baby on my back. Sometimes, I have to leave my baby with my older children, who are only six and four. I am scared to leave them but there is nothing else I can do. It’s the only way I can feed them […] We are still waiting for compensation for what has happened. I hate looking at the factory – it makes me feel sick. That place has wrecked our lives.”

These situations have not only been happening in one location, but throughout the Albertine region particularly in Hoima,Buliisa,Kikube,Nwoya,Pakwach,Kiryandongo ,Amuru,Adjumani,Kyankwanzi among other districts in the region.

For example, in Rwamutonga Hoima district children have died because of deteriorated living conditions where 1,500 households were evicted to make room for an oil waste treatment plant to be built by McAlester Energy Resources Ltd, a Ugandan company owned by the US-based MANTLE Oil & Gas. The dispute continues, with residents forced to live in makeshift camps.

Those who were compensated received little compensation compared to the actual values of their properties. In her own words, Nancy has to say this;

“Before our land was taken women were traders of goods, but now there is no money to do the trading. We suffer because we are the ones caring for our families, not our husbands. The oil refinery has brought violence to women’s lives, but also women have experienced violence from their husbands because of the issues of compensation and lack of money. If I met the people from the oil refinery now, I would tell them how they have badly mistreated us and demand that they give us the full compensation we are owed.”

For the women in Nwoya district, the situation was not different from other places. Joy has to say this;

“Land grabbing is mainly affecting women because here we live in extended families. First of all, there is the problem of food. Then, men have deserted women because of the land grabbing; they don’t want to look after their children and sometimes if there is compensation money, they take it all and leave the woman and children with nothing. Women are facing very tough times here in Uganda. The oil here is a curse to women. We waste our time, digging for other people, and at the end of the day, we don’t have enough to feed our children. The oil has taken everything away from us.”

Much of the work done by women in this region, and elsewhere, is unpaid and undervalued by men in the community as well as by the government and private sector.

“women’s labor and contribution to making good homes and raising children and caring for the sick is not paid, neither is it indicated in Uganda’s GDP.”. “companies should value the work done by women which allows their husbands to work for the company – this means paying workers adequately so they can support their families.”

Land acquisition and environmental degradation have further increased women’s unpaid work. As incomes fall and prices rise, it is usually a woman’s role to find a way to feed their families. Women throughout the Albertine region are undergoing stress and anxiety due to worrying about their futures as well as the number of hours spent working or trying to find work to make ends meet.

For example, some women in Nwoya district noted that;

“The work of women has changed again; with the discovery of oil, there have been restrictions on entering the national park [Murchison Falls National Park]. So, women walk long distances to get to their destination. This extra walking along unfamiliar routes exposes women to a lot of dangers like the risk of violence and getting very tired which risks our health.”

There have been increasing Violence and discrimination at the household level. Land acquisition processes serve to shed light on the patriarchal social norms dictating women’s voice and roles. Women are not supposed to have a say in what happens to land or to compensation. Several  women Albertine Watch spoke to explained that men’s views comprise the following:

“women are cared for by men,” “women do not have permanent places,” “women are just men’s helpers,” “women do not possess children,” “children and land belong to men,” “men are heads of families and they take all decisions to do with land,” and “women do not possess the land and they came without land.”

This contradictory nature of these views given women’s roles in feeding, clothing, and educating their families. In spite of this, the women are rejecting these socially prescribed roles, and are coming together to resist and confront the land rush. In doing so they risk backlash and further violence but remain steadfast in their pursuit of justice.

“some men don’t support women’s participation in land rights training and other women centered programs; they need women to be kept in the dark and ignorant of their rights, so that they can continue oppressing women.”

“Domestic violence as a result of land grabbing is high and yet local leaders do not solve it; at the police station there is not even a gender or women’s desk.”

Regulation to protect local communities in the oil and mining areas is limited, and militarization has reportedly increased to secure project development sites. This is having a detrimental impact on women with increased reports of violence and threats thereof.

Oil exploration in the Albertine Graben region has seen an influx of military police, elite forces, and other security personnel. The oil companies have also deployed security guards. According to Global Witness, there is no reference in the PSAs to any limits on the remit of security firms employed in the oil sector. As a result, in its 2014 report on oil, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission noted that security personnel employed to guard oil production sites have denied access to labor inspectors attempting to verify working conditions within the sites.

Because of the oil discovery, there has been an influx of people in the oil region seeking employ­ment with the oil companies. This has increased food demand more than what the ecosystem can support. The region has seen a large influx of many land grabbers and most of these have come disguising themselves as cattle keepers who are on the constant move when actually, their plan is to permanently occupy and claim ownership of some community and rangelands.

Plans by government to construct an oil refin­ery on a 29km2 piece of land in Kabaale-Buse­ruka sub-county has contributed to reduction in food production and supplies.

The land earmarked for the construction of an oil refinery was originally farming land for around 7200 inhabitants of the area and with this new development, communities were displaced with inadequate com­pensation, and those who remained to await relocation were stopped from growing crops. Although recently the ban has been lifted temporarily, allowing communi­ties to grow strictly cereal food crops. This is not sufficient for the food demands of the entire population in the area and actually vio­lates their food rights. Around 2000 families are facing this challenge.

There is also accelerated community displacement and food insecurity caused by mushrooming Sugar plantation corporations in Kigyayo-Kiziranfumbi Sub-county; Kikube district. A key firm in Question is Hoima Sugar Limited. The company acquired land from the late Kimera and started evicting people slowly and this was in 2013. The company (Hoima Sugar limited) is reported to be related to Kinyara Sugar Works now an Independent Company owned by Indians in Masindi and whose plantations throughout grower individuals are currently threat­ening some patches of Budongo forest.

In February 2015, over 4633 adults and 3357 chil­dren were evicted from 1,860 hectares of land in Kigyayo-Kiziranfumbi after it was leased to an investor in the names of Hoima Sugar Ltd for Sugar cane plan­tation and currently communities are living in dire need in 2 camps (A and B).

The above development has seen communities former agricultural land grabbed forcefully and by coercion. This has left majority communi­ties landless and with no food. The report estab­lished that over 6,000 people are now living in a camp with no food to eat and other basic needs.

“We were displaced from our land by the sugar cane plantation establishment, we can no longer produce food on our own, we can longer take our children to school, our young girls are eloping and others defiled. Some of my fellow women are engaged in sexual relationships with sugar cane workers in order to get food for their families”;

Says Namara Harriet – one of the affected women.

For women who resist these forms of development, threats and violence are common. When women raise their voices to defend their land and the environment from the impact of large-scale land deals, they challenge corporate and state power as well as patriarchal norms in society. The Association of Women’s Rights in Development has found that as a consequence, women experience gender-specific harassment and violence, as, “they are targeted both as defenders of rights, land and natural resources, and as women defying gender norms”.

In order to promote safer, enabling working environment for women human rights defenders and other women working for the development of their communities and themselves, the Albertine Watch recommends several action plans that need to be implemented by both state and non-state actors;

Government and companies must respect and recognize the rights of women human rights defenders and other women working to protect their environment and land. All women need to be protected irrespective of their culture, religion, political affiliations among others.

Government, companies, police, armies, and private security organizations working in the Albertine region must stop attacking, harassing, and intimidating women human rights defenders and other women who oppose oil and agribusiness projects including but not limited to physical attacks, smear campaigns, gender-based attacks against women human rights defenders and other women and their roles in the family and community.

Companies and government must respect the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and its use as an international standard for developing laws, policies and plans related to operations of extractive industries

Oil companies and agribusiness to ensure that free, prior, and informed consent is received from all sections of the affected community, for all prospective extractive operations, and withdraw from operations resisted by the community.

The government should Investigate cases of violations against women human rights defenders and other women by all perpetrators, and ensure that such abuse is punished. The government must provide victims with access to effective judicial remedies and reparation.

Oil companies and other international agribusiness operating in the Albertine region must ensure that the conduct of private security actors employed by the companies is in line with international human rights standards, including the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and establish appropriate reporting mechanisms for complaints of violations committed by such actors.

National, regional and international human rights defenders protection organizations monitor and document violations against women human rights defenders and other women, their organizations and community working to defend land and environment, and generate information on violence and gender specific impacts against women human rights defenders and other women.

National, regional and international human rights defenders protection organizations to make specific recommendations to government of Uganda and several companies so that they respect and fulfill human rights obligations and contribute to Safe working environment for human rights defenders.

Donors should provide flexible, emergency, core and long-term funding to for multidimensional security and protection mitigating security threats, and build the capacity of human rights defenders, organizations and community in holistic security, advocacy and awareness-raising as well as legal actions

Donors should also support local initiatives by and for women human rights defenders and other organizations in the Albertine region documenting human rights abuse. This is because documentation can tell stories, create legal or cultural shifts, provide protection, hold people to account for abuses, and shape social movements and individual actions. Documentation is a process as well as a product: it records experiences, either as specific incidents or as patterns, and it makes those experiences visible, whether literally or metaphorically.

Kigyayo internally displaced camp-Kikube district



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