Uganda's president has promised to do more for women. It is important that he does, says international development secretary, Douglas Alexander
Last year I visited the town of Gulu, in northern Uganda, to see how things had changed since the peace talks in 2006, which brought stability to the region for the first time in 20 years. A new maternity facility had recently been opened, and I spoke to women who were giving birth in a bed for the first time. Their stories were inspiring, and proof of the dividend that peace brings. But they are still the lucky few. Most women in Uganda have to give birth on the floor of their huts, without clean sheets or sterilised water. And up to 8,000 women die every year because of complications during childbirth, around 80 times the rate in the UK – deaths which could easily be prevented by a doctor or nurse.
If you travel south-east from Gulu for roughly 100 miles you reach Katine, where the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Farm-Africa, with the Guardian's support, are helping to provide basic healthcare, sanitation and education to improve the lives of the 25,000 people who live there. People like Alice, who is pregnant for the sixth time and is scared because her first four babies died and her fifth miscarried. Alice can't afford hospital fees, so she visits one of the Traditional Birth Attendants, which Amref has trained. Birth attendants can provide much needed care for pregnant women, and give them someone to turn to when they need help, but if there is a complication during the pregnancy Alice will need to see a doctor – requiring money she doesn't have.
Stories like Alice's are not uncommon. Too often women are left to fend for themselves during childbirth, without medical advice or proper support. In a country where almost a third of the population still lives on less than $1 a day, providing care for pregnant women and mothers isn't always considered a priority.
Part of the problem is that too often women are treated as second class citizens, and suffer neglect and abuse as a normal part of their lives. For a quarter of all women in Uganda, their first sexual experience is rape. Yet last year there were only five convictions for rape across the whole of the country. With 5 million women suffering domestic or sexual violence, Uganda not only needs changes in the law, it needs a change in people's attitudes to women.
The Guardian's work with Amref shows that education is central to helping women protect themselves. Educated women know their rights and can stand up for them. Rose, aged 13, goes to school in Katine, where she has been taught about contraception and sexual health. She said that many of her friends feel pressured to have sex because they get money for food and clothes from their boyfriends. Two of Rose's friends became pregnant while they were still at primary school. But Rose understands that the choices she makes now will affect the rest of her life, and she is determined to concentrate on her studies so that she can stand on her own two feet in the future.
Education can be costly, though, and for parents struggling to feed their families, sending their children to school is very expensive. The Ugandan government introduced free primary education in 1997 – a huge step forward. But secondary schools still frequently charge fees, which parents simply can't afford. The UK's Department for International Development is working with the Ugandan government to support free education, healthcare and sanitation. Together we are providing more schools and teachers, more hospitals and doctors, and helping to ensure that the poorest can access the basic services that here in Britain we all take for granted.On International Women's day last March, Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, promised to do more for women. It is important that he does. Rose said she wants to wait until she is 20 to have children. I hope that by then Uganda will have come far enough that she can visit a doctor if there are complications during her pregnancy, and get medicine when her baby needs it. I hope she won't suffer as Alice has, seeing what should be a time of joy and hope turn into a terrible tragedy. No country can afford to let its women suffer in silence in this way. No country can win the fight against poverty if it discriminates against half the human race.
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