15 November 2012

Uganda: Are You Incomplete Without a Son?

A number of Africans breathed a sigh of relief when their son Barack Obama was voted back into the White House.

The waiting was nail-biting and some Africans feared the shame he might bring them had he failed to secure a second term in office.

Key to Obama's success is the women who viewed him as the one most likely to understand and address their issues. Promoting reproductive health rights and championing equal pay for equal work, Obama spoke to the real life concerns of every woman.

"I just want my daughters to have the same opportunities as your sons," read one of his campaign adverts - captivating, realistic and irresistible to the women whose vote was crucial in getting him back in office.

It is hard to forget Michelle Obama's heart-warming speech about how Barack's grandmother worked hard to raise him but "like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling."

The beautiful pictures of Obama and his daughters emanated reliability, integrity and dedication. But to one Luo kinsman resident in Uganda, the fact that Barack Obama does not have a son is a gaping hole in an otherwise seamless story of might, success and beating the odds to become one of history's greatest.

As we watched Obama's victory speech, he repeated a remark I have heard over and over again: "If only he had a son to carry on his legacy." The Western world has for the most part long accepted that women are as good as their male counterparts in every sphere.

And one who holds prejudices such as these does so at their own peril. The silence on the rights of women, say observers of the American political landscape, cost Mitt Romney the White House. As did his silence on gender insensitive remarks made by some Republican candidates.

But the gender gap in Uganda is real and widely accepted. The young Luo man spoke for many men and women in Africa who believe that a man is only accomplished once he has a son.

Samuel Twinomugisha, 45, is a successful businessman with five daughters. While he is emphatic that he is satisfied with his girls, he says that societal pressure to have male children can be daunting. "People advised me to go to witch- doctors so that I could change the sex of my children," he recalls.

To date, Twinomugisha says, friends advise him to keep trying for a son. "Of course we would have liked to have both boys and girls, but all children are gifts from God," he says.

His last born is 13 years younger than his second last child. She was one last attempt to get a boy. "All the children had grown and gone to boarding school; so, we decided to try again," he says.

Thanks to his religious upbringing, the deeply born-again Twinomugisha now speaks of his daughters with fondness and pride--two of them are graduates, two others are at university and the last in primary school. "They have always performed well academically. Girls are just as successful as boys," he says.

But not all men who have only girls are as accepting. Society's pressure to have a son has driven many a man to risk HIV/Aids in the name of trying to conceive a son with another woman.

And while it is a scientific fact that men's chromosomes are what determine the sex of children, African societies still blame failure to conceive a boy on the woman.

For example, among the Jopadhola, a Luo ethnicity in Uganda, a woman who bears a son is rewarded immensely with praises and gifts from her husband, relatives and in-laws.

Conversely, when a woman gives birth to a girl, the man does not even make an appearance once he receives the news that his wife has borne him what is considered a malaya, a prostitute.

The position is similar among other ethnicities. When the Kabaka of Buganda announced that he had a son outside wedlock, his subjects welcomed the news with merriment. They expressed the view that his adultery was justified considering his wife had not borne him a son.

Sons in a patriarchal society like ours are seen as the only way to carry on the family name. Here, the belief is girls do not belong to their father's homes. Once they marry, they are assimilated into their husbands' homes and become part of their family.

The only people you can then rely on as "real" members of the family are male children. It is in pursuit of this culture that women in most ethnicities do not inherit land or any property, are buried at the husband's home and sometimes miss out on an education in favour of their male counterparts. "If possible, failure to bear sons would be a ground for divorce," Elizabeth Naiga, a lawyer, jokes ruefully.

Until 2003 when the Constitutional Court declared some sections of the marriage and divorce laws unconstitutional, the law upheld the superior position of male children. It gave them priority when it came to matters of inheritance and made it harder for women to get divorce than their male counterparts.

"But things have changed. Now women are very successful. It is the men who marry and never return home," she says. "You know some women give birth to eleven children in the name of finding a son. Some die while giving birth."

While it is true that there are also people who strive hard to get daughters, society is kinder to people who have only sons. In fact, in some cultures, it is a great source of pride as these sons are an "army" that will protect the homestead.

For all the preference for boys, girls are a source of wealth through the contentious bride price that is part and parcel of most cultures. Asked if he has started rubbing his palms and counting his cows, Twinomugisha bursts out laughing and says:

"Culturally the men who marry my daughters are expected to bring cows. But even if they did not, I would not mind. I love my girls regardless. I love them so they can love themselves."

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