Remarks for the Launch of the Uganda Muslim Women Civilization Initiative

Chargé d ’Affairs Patricia Mahoney

Thursday, December 3, 2015, 4:00 – 5:00 pm

Hotel Africana, Kampala, Uganda

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here today for the launch of the Uganda Muslim Women Civilization Initiative.

First, I would like to thank the organizer of this event, Shamirah Namutebi, the Executive Director of UMWCI.  I would also like to recognize the speakers who have presented on important issues related to women’s economic empowerment.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences today.

Also, I would like to thank Sheikh Hamid for hosting this event at Hotel Africana.  This summer Sheikh Hamid participated in a two-week exchange program that sent six imams and faith leaders from Uganda and Tanzania to the United States to develop their understanding of Muslim life in the United States, religious tolerance, and interfaith dialogue.

Since his return, Sheikh Hamid has generously hosted several events promoting these themes. Thank you so much.

Last October, the Embassy hosted a ten-day visit from Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, a Syrian-American who came to Uganda for the second time on a U.S. speaker program.  In Kampala and Eastern Uganda, Imam Arafat met with Muslim communities and interfaith groups to speak about a variety of topics, including youth empowerment, religious tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. He also reached out to audiences on radio and television.

On October 6, the Embassy hosted an event for young professional Muslim women from the Uganda Muslim Sisters Forum and Allied Female Muslim Lawyers Initiative.  I understand that many of you were there.  Imam Arafat encouraged those present to channel their resources, efforts, and enthusiasm into a new organization to support and empower women.  I congratulate Shamirah and other members of the UMWCI for responding to his call and gathering here today.

This is an important time to launch the Uganda Muslim Women Civilization Initiative.  We are also commemorating the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, a global campaign that runs each year from November 25 to December 10.  Gender-based violence comes in many forms, including sexual, emotional, and domestic violence. I would like to say a few words about the relationship between women’s economic empowerment and gender-based violence.

The statistics on gender-based violence are troubling. Worldwide, the UN estimates that one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. UN Women here cites a 2011 survey revealing that 56 percent of women in Uganda from 15 to 49 years old have experienced physical violence at least once since age 15.

I believe that women’s economic empowerment is a key tool against this abuse.  A woman who works and earns an income has greater independence and self-esteem and is more likely to demand a larger role in decision making within the family.  She is more confident and able to advocate for herself and others who are vulnerable.

Cathy Russell, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, explains that women’s economic empowerment can lead to a dramatic decrease in gender-based violence.  She says, “women who take home dependable pay from decent jobs are better equipped to provide for themselves and more likely to stand up for their rights.”

There are many stories of courageous women who used to suffer from physical and mental abuse at the hand of their husbands.  Women who looked for work, found employment, and started to make money.  With their earnings, these women could better pay for their children’s food, clothes, and school fees.  Often, the abuse stops because their husbands fear that, now that these women are empowered and financially independent, they can either leave or report them to the police.  Women who are economically empowered can stand up to domestic violence, and their families are healthier, better educated, and more prosperous.

Promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls is a priority for the U.S. government.  At home and abroad, the United States is working to combat discrimination, eliminate violence against women and girls, support women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs, and encourage women’s economic and political leadership.

In Uganda, the United States works with the government and civil society to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and to support the growth and development of healthy, empowered girls.  In November, the United States helped draft the National Action Plan for Child Well-Being, which aims to keep girls in school through secondary and reduce gender-based violence, teen pregnancies, and child marriage.  The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and President Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative are two other ways we demonstrate our commitment to these issues.

Likewise, the formation of the Uganda Muslim Women Civilization Initiative is a positive step in this direction.  This interfaith organization will facilitate successful professional women, such as yourselves, to support and empower others from less advantaged communities.  Through outreach activities, volunteer work, and fundraising events, you will make a difference in women’s lives.

I understand it is challenging for young Muslim women to grow up in Uganda.  Muslims have long been marginalized in this country, and women regularly face discrimination.  That’s what makes many of you such remarkable people.  As a successful minority, it is natural to want to focus on helping your own community.

During his visit, Imam Arafat urged Muslims to engage with all of Uganda.  He questioned audiences whether it was permissible for Muslims to serve non-Muslims, and he asked why Muslims, for example, didn’t invite Christians to break the fast with them during Ramadan.  Likewise, I encourage UMWCI to embody this interfaith principle by serving women in all communities, reaching out to different faith-based organizations, and partnering with other women’s groups.

I also encourage you all to take advantage of this opportunity to develop professionally, network, and share resources.  Today you have heard from several remarkable people who are deeply invested in women’s empowerment, and you are surrounded by other people who share your values and beliefs.  Get to know each other, ask questions, offer your help, and learn how you can work together.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak at this event.  I am honored to be involved in the launch of UMWCI, and I look forward to hearing more about your goals and activities.  I wish you all the best.