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Learning to hold their own

The columns of people carrying containers of palm oil, makeshift sacks of rice and large bunches of bananas into Bundibugyo on their heads are almost exclusively women.

Many have walked for miles from their villages, their children behind them, pulling a goat or carrying large bundles of firewood on their backs.

If there's a man with them, it's likely he'll be holding nothing heavier than an umbrella to shade himself from the sun. Or perhaps a cigarette.

Polygamy leaves the majority of women head of a one-parent family. Their responsibilities include growing all the food for their children, and using any small amount of extra income made by selling crops for school fees, health treatment, clothing and other essentials.

Until the literacy classes began women had no say in the development of their village and no right to speak in public on such matters. And, as twice as many women were illiterate as men, they were often cheated in the market by male coffee and cocoa buyers who knew they could not read the numbers on the weighing scales.

But that is changing. ActionAid's parish councils, set up to manage the literacy facilitators, advise on projects and mobilise the community to take action, are all run by women. And women make up 85 per cent of the literacy classes.

At Nyakakindo post-literacy class, Jene Mbabazi, 30, a mother-of-three and member of the village council, says: "Before I could not stand in front of people and talk, but after two years in the class I can talk to anyone. "

She spent the morning helping collect large stones for the next project, the building of a school. "We are happy because we have the prestige that women are doing a certain job and the men are behind us. But we are spearheading it."

Yodesi Gubika, 36, a mother-of-four, says that after her "gender workload" lesson she brought her husband to the class and he learned that if one of them is cooking, the other needs to go for water or firewood - work he previously thought should be left for a woman. "We don't fight anymore, because of the class," she says.

Nalule Spice, 28, a mother-of-three, once thought a bank was only for rich people. "But now we know we can borrow money and use it to pay school fees, or invest it in growing cocoa and coffee - and use the profits to buy clothes or a chicken."

Piridase Nabutone, 35, a mother-of-three, says that from the lesson on the "hungry season", she learned that instead of giving away her surplus at harvest time to friends, she needed to keep some back and plan for famine. "Now we divide the garden into three and grow crops for different times of year because we know the months when there will be no food."

One of the changes Nalule Spice values most is that as a parish council member she can meet other women from other parishes. "Before you could stay here for years and never go outide the village, but now we go far and associate with other people."

Many of the local women have drawn inspiration from Judith Bakirya, whose position as head of the ActionAid programme in Bundibugyo directly challenges traditional assumptions that women can't bring up children and play a leading role in the community. It's a point visibly reinforced when she drives the ActionAid pick-up - one of only a handful of vehicles bigger than a motorbike in the area - into the villages in the bush.

But Jene Mbabazi is confident that even if the agency packs up and leaves, the changes will last. "Because of the training we have had, if ActionAid goes we will know where to start from, we will continue the development work in our parish."

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