Dollar buys a slot in herstory

April 24, 1998


Makerere University, the first African university to offer a degree course in women's studies, is seeking 1.5 million donations of US$1 each to pay for a new building to house its expanding women's department.

Men and women from all over the world will be invited to have their own names, or the names of their loved ones, included on a commemorative list of friends of the centre.

Born out of recognition that knowledge is a weapon for women on their route out of poverty and subservience, the courses were the brainchild of three female university staff. They took the idea to the Uganda Association of University Women, portraying it as a potential "academic arm of the women's movement" and part of the movement that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in the 1986 rebellion against Milton Obote.

The Museveni government has a national gender policy that states that any government project, any non-government or civil organisation working with government, including trade unions, must address women's issues in their development proposals.

The women's studies courses keyed into this and over the years have offered courses on gender and development to the wider community as well as degrees.

During the United States presidential visit to Uganda last month First Lady Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at Makerere University. When introducing Mrs Clinton, vice-chancellor John Sebuwufu requested international assistance in the construction of a new building to relieve the women's department's overstretched facilities and to expand its outreach work.

In her speech, Mrs Clinton praised Joy Kwesiga, dean of social sciences, as one of Uganda's "voices of freedom" and commended her work in bringing women's issues to the forefront.

Dr Kwesiga was a leading force behind the success of the department, which began offering masters degrees in 1991. But cuts in government subsidies obliged the department to start thinking creatively about how to raise money.

It started offering short night courses geared towards working people, many employed in government departments or non-government development agencies, and that focused on gender and the law, health care or management.

The classes are often interdisciplinary featuring community professionals as guest lecturers.

Each class attracts 15 to 20 students paying US$80-100 apiece, a significant addition to the department's budget. Income aside, the classes have already exposed hundreds of worker students to the concept of incorporating women's issues into their business personnel departments, agency's development plans, or government ministry's gender considerations.

"There is a lot of practical analysis for their jobs," said programme head Grace Bantebya Kyomu-hendo. "Classes are very participatory because most people have a lot of experience."

Since three Makerere staff attended a University of Sussex Institute of Development course on women and development, Ugandans have served as facilitators for the course. Sussex reciprocated by helping Makerere found a regional course in gender training for development, designed to serve eastern and southern Africa.

Sponsored by Sussex's department for international development and managed by the British Council, the course is aimed at people "in positions to influence development policy and practice within their organisations".

The four-month programme features one month of intensive residential training at Makerere, followed by three months of monitoring, when students are expected to return to their organisations to design and implement gender-sensitive action plans. The successful course now offers a second phase for its graduates. Every second year, students can return to Makerere for a "training of trainers" course. This is designed to impart skills and practical experience to allow students to design gender-sensitisation classes for their organisations.

The programme is now considering admitting PhD candidates. Three women are working on research proposals and the department's first class may start this October.

The autumn semester will also become a significant landmark when women's studies enrols its first class of undergraduates. Dr Kwesiga expects to attract about 100 students The department is hoping the government will sponsor a third and the rest will pay themselves.

The new building is an important part of this expansion. Besides classrooms and lecture halls, it will have child-care facilities and temporary accommodation to "attract professionals, visiting scholars, who could come and spend a month or two either reading or giving guest lectures".

The department feels certain that its fund-raising drive will attract donors and that many will rush to remember their mothers, daughters, sisters, who were fortunate enough to attend higher education and those who were only able to dream.

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