Anne Akello is MAG’s gender and inclusion adviser, working to support implementation of gender equity and women’s inclusion in all aspects of MAG’s work. Here, on International Women’s Day, she shares her personal story of how she overcame gender bias, as part of this year’s activities around #BreakTheBias
As an African woman coming from an impoverished rural community in Uganda, I felt that empowering myself was extremely important, not just for me, but in shaping influence for the greater good of women and girls in my community as well. I knew I could be one voice calling for more meaningful inclusion and empowerment of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised groups.
Female empowerment is not merely about pushing ourselves into positions of power, but it is equally about using our influence and knowledge acquired in positions of power to help women to progress. Indeed, for each woman that challenges gender bias it helps us all achieve an end to discriminatory practices against women.
My calling to break the bias began early in life. This stance has had a great impact on my career and personal life, especially given where I was born. I was raised in a society that traditional gender prejudice routinely prevented women and girls from equal access to resources and opportunities. This has had lifelong consequences in many women’s lives, with far fewer opportunities to access education than our male counterparts.
My society strongly believed that girls were raised to be married off and are the source of wealth for a family in terms of their bride price. When I was young, dowry played a crucial role in fetching wealth for most families. First, it is what enabled our brothers to marry because the bride price fetched from female sisters was used for marrying their wives. Secondly, wealth was determined by the size of your cattle heard and of course, if a family had many daughters, it meant a lot of wealth. Marriage, just like motherhood, is one of the strongest traditional and cultural practices in most parts of North-Eastern Uganda not only between couples but families from both sides. It was in this restrictive setting that I struggled to push myself into education and managed to bit by bit break the bias and stereotypes until I got the opportunity to access more diverse spaces of influence within Uganda and abroad.
I joined the INGO world, and specifically MAG, with a determination to enhance gender equity and to challenge the existing systems of oppression and exclusion of women and girls in the communities of our work. When women and girls are empowered to lead and speak their minds and to determine their futures, we all benefit. Experience has shown that when we challenge oppression and fight for women and girls’ rights to inclusion and to determine our future, societies are more stable, safe and prosperous. At MAG we take a gender-sensitive perspective with a greater focus on the specific needs of women and girls in our programmes. MAG understands that women’s efforts often aim to transform systems still dominated by male hierarchies, by addressing the structural changes necessary for sustainable safety, peace and security in communities we work in.
This is particularly important in conflict affected countries and communities where we see gender bias mean women and girls are often the primary victims and as such, a focus on what it means to be a woman and a girl can be key to reducing violence or improving the prospects of peace. The socially constructed notions of being female play a significant role in how women’s roles are perceived in conflict situations as well as the roles that others in society allocate to women and girls. In the context of MAG’s work women still struggle for acknowledgement of their voices and agency in a largely patriarchal society. There is a clear resistance to developments towards gender equity from male-dominated power positions that cut across social and political divides. Women have limited power in their own communities; they find it hard to access both formal and informal circles of deliberation and decision-making, and women’s organisations constantly need to re-assert their right to participation.
Working for MAG is allowing me to live my purpose. Our teams continue to support women to play strategic roles addressing gender bias and building inclusive approaches across all the contexts in which we work. We see this as essential to link women’s efforts at multiple levels more effectively and to open up spaces where women and others who are usually excluded from formal peace processes can meaningfully participate.
I know that many women and girls from our community work need MAG to be their voice and will continue to be represented by MAG as we transition to a fairer more equitable world where women and girls voices are not only heard, they are sought out.