How to build powerful advocacy movements: lessons from the 1960s Ugandan women’s movement

By Livia Eva Karoui (@LiviaEva)

On March 22, 1960, women from across Uganda arrived at the National Cultural Centre in Kampala for the Conference on the Status of Women in Relation to the Marriage Laws. They represented 12 of the 17 districts of Uganda and all its major religious denominations. They were white British women, black Ugandans and Ugandan women of Indian descent. Their goal was to discuss potential changes to the laws regarding the status of women in the country.  Independence from the British government would be coming just two years later, and women knew that in order for Uganda to prosper and grow, it needed the full participation of every citizen. Yet, they argued, for this to be possible the current legislation that governed the status of women needed to be changed. The existing laws on marriage and divorce, inheritance and succession had been drafted by the British government at the beginning of the century and, the women maintained, were not fit for a modern, independent Uganda. The 1960 Conference marked the beginning of organised activism by Ugandan women to change the laws that upheld a patriarchal family structure – a struggle that still continues to this day.

While reforms did not succeed in the 1960s, and the first law changing the status of marriage from Uganda would only come in 1973, this early activism proved the ability of women to create a diverse, broad-based coalition – a fact that would later be hailed by academics as one of the strengths of the Ugandan women’s movement (Tripp 2001). The Conference on the Status of Women in 1960 was a key turning point in creating this diverse movement. How, exactly, did they do so? And what lessons can contemporary movements seeking to engage a broad coalition of actors learn from Ugandan women?

Engaging elites and grassroots activists
Scholars of social movements have pointed out the importance of creating coalitions of activists that represent different groups in society, whether that be in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class or geographical provenance (Kang and Tripp 2018). The 1960 Conference was successful in bringing together women (and men) from across Uganda. However, bringing the women together was just the first step. The Conference also sought to ensure that those underrepresented would have a seat at the table, and not just in the audience. During the five day event, representatives from all over Uganda gave their testimonies and shared the perspectives of women from their home districts, which they had spent the previous months collecting. Women involved in policy making joined them in these conversations. These included women such as Dr Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro: the first woman graduate in East Africa, a member of the Uganda Legislative Council between 1958 and 1961, and the author of a bill that would later build the foundation for the nation’s first successful marriage reform act in 1973 (Brown 1988).  Yet it was not the strength of individual actors that led to these successes, but rather the exchange of ideas that came from their interaction with a diverse group of women, and their ability to build a common narrative to ‘impress upon the public the force and unanimity of these opinions’ (Uganda Council of Women 1960: 7).

Choosing the right message
What was the language that was able to bring together such a diverse community of women? After all, marriage and divorce reform encompassed many issues, from brideprice and polygamy to marriage registration and widow inheritance, and each participant had different priorities in relations to these issues. Christian women were typically eager to ban polygamy, while many rural women were more concerned with inheritance (Uganda Council of Women 1960: 7). In order for any progress to be made, activists had to agree on a common discourse to articulate the need to update the laws that went beyond their differences. While this meant that the final message was quite moderate in its demands, it also meant that it would resonate with a much broader public (Merry 2006).  Women agreed on an advocacy message that centred the whole family, and not just women, as the beneficiaries of reform in relations to marriage. They played on the traditional conception of women as homemakers and mothers of the nation to show how reform would enable everyone to contribute to the development of independent Uganda. As the opening paragraph to the Conference report put it, ‘everyone wants a happy home’ (Uganda Council of Women 1960: 1) – yet with the laws as they stood, ‘there cannot be peace and happiness in the home if the wife is discontented. Today many homes are unhappy and many marriages break down very quickly’ (ibid. 2). This language not only overcame the perception of marriage and divorce reform as a women’s issue, but also called on men to be equally concerned about the lack of change as, ‘no country can go forward if the women are not able to take their proper place’ (ibid. 4).

Building alliances
This focus on the family helped frame the issue of reform as something that interested the whole country – but it also allowed women’s advocates to build alliances with groups that were generally adverse to the language of women’s rights. The participation of Catholic and Anglican Church leaders and customary authorities as speakers at the 1960 Conference was notable: in his speech, The Bishop of the Upper Nile agreed that ‘if a competent body such as yours feels strongly about the practice of bridewealth, that it is against the true interest if the country […] they should do all in their power to educate public opinion’ to change the laws (ibid. 32).  These examples underscore the importance (and success) of creating the right advocacy message when pushing for potentially controversial legislative changes.

While the 1960 Conference and the women’s coalition that emerged from it had their limitations, learning how they were able to work together with such a broad variety of actors can provide lessons for contemporary coalitions seeking better laws for women and other marginalised groups. Even more significant, this example shows the importance of looking beyond Europe and the ‘Global North’ to understand how to build powerful advocacy campaigns.


Works Cited

Brown, W. (1988). Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance: The Uganda. Council of Women’s movement for legislative reform. Cambridge: Cambridge African Monographs 10.

Kang, A., & Tripp, A. (2018). Coalitions Matter: Citizenship, Women, and Quota Adoption in Africa. Perspectives on Politics, 16(1), 73-91. Doi: 10.1017/S1537592717002225

Merry, S. E. (2006). Human Rights & Gendered Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

Tripp, A.M. (2001).. The Politics of Autonomy and Cooptation in Africa: The Case of the Ugandan Women’s Movement. The Journal of Modern African Studies 39(1) : 101–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3557292.

Uganda Council of Women (1960, March 22-26). Conference on the Status of Women in Relation to the Marriage Laws.  Box (676.1) 396:340. Centre of African Studies Archive, University of Cambridge.

Image credit: The skyline in Kampala. Author’s own photograph.

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