Today is Agnes Igoye’s birthday, and she spent it mentoring high schools girls in Kampala, Uganda, in honor of International Women’s Day. Igoye serves as Uganda’s deputy National Coordinator for Prevention of Trafficking in Persons and heads its Immigration Training Academy. She spoke to me over the phone from her friend’s house in Kampala.
What kind of day is International Women’s Day in Uganda?
Today is a public holiday. People are happy they aren’t going to work. Men cook and clean for us. But it’s not just cleaning and cooking. Women are highlighted in television programming, in newspapers and in public life.
Sometimes women get flowers and women say no, no, no it’s not about flowers — we want to see more women in positions of power! So seeing conversations about putting women in leadership roles, even if the conversations are around flowers, is good news for me. And it’s my birthday, so c’mon!
Is this kind of a one-day lip service?
Some people challenge the purpose of this day. They say if there is one day for women, the rest of the days are for men. But when men do household work and start cooking, it starts a conversation. Men realize it’s not shameful to cook! Children think about why it’s important to celebrate mommy. People have conversations about women’s rights.
Are any men cooking or cleaning for you?
No. I don’t live with men! But I’m seeing hilarious pictures on social media. One picture showed a woman on her phone while a man massaged her feet.
Why is that picture so funny?
In Uganda, a woman’s role is to cook and be in the kitchen. It’s the man who’s normally on the phone. This picture shows a man on his knees while the woman is busy communicating, making deals. It’s comedy — people make fun of it, but this picture changes the status quo. People see pictures like this and realize role reversal is possible. This is how change happens.
But won’t it just go back to normal tomorrow?
We don’t know what happens in people’s homes. In my family growing up, my brothers wouldn’t go into the kitchen because it was known that boys don’t go into the kitchen. Back then, if a man said he cleaned his house, he would be laughed at. But now my brother comes to my house, and he will make himself a cup of tea. He will make food. He does it! So we are seeing a shift [at least in my family].
Even the dating game changes. Now, when women are looking for a partner, we are looking for a man who cooks. When you find a man who cooks, you’re like wowww! So now, for a man to get the woman he wants, he has to at least pretend that he can cook. So that is progress.
Are you looking for a man who cooks?
Me? C’mon! I definitely can’t have a man who expects me to come home from work and cook for him while he’s sitting. No way! That’s out. I’d rather not have a man than have that.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you on international women’s day?
Two years ago, I was asked to speak to a crowd in Pallisa District. As I was waiting for my turn to speak, every other person to speak was a man. I was getting so worried. Finally they introduced the guest of honor, a female member of parliament. After she spoke, I stood up and thanked her for showing up because without her, it would have been a celebration of men! Everyone laughed. But the message I was trying to get across was that they should see that even on international women’s day, almost all of the speakers are men.
Is that common? Is it difficult to find women in leadership?
Yes, in many places [in Uganda] it’s difficult. Even in the workplace. Recently, I was in a high level meeting of mostly men. We were looking for people to send to hard to reach areas — remote villages. The men made a list of people to send to those villages, and it was only men.
I asked why women weren’t on the list, and the men said they were doing us a favor because it’s dangerous for women to go to those places.
I said no! Women must take on these tasks. We must break down stereotypes. We must prove we can do these things.
What’s life like for women in villages?
In rural villages where people work as peasant farmers, traditional gender roles are strong. It will take a while for these messages to reach women there. I grew up in the rural Eastern Uganda village of Kaboloi. We were peasant farmers. Women spent their days finding food and collecting firewood while men would go out and drink. But my family defied all the odds. When my dad died a few months ago, he gave his land to us, his daughters. This is really unheard of. My eldest sister was the primary heir to his land instead of my brother. My father was the first person in the village to give land to daughters.
What did you do today?
Because my birthday falls on women’s day, I always do something for women — speaking to crowds, mentoring girls. Today, I went to visit my friend’s daughter at her school. She’s 14. I had lunch with her and other girls at school, and we spoke about the importance of education and hard work. She said chemistry and mathematics are the most challenging parts of school. In Uganda, people think girls are not good at math, but I wanted to encourage her. We talked about getting extra help from a teacher and time management. I told her that there’s nothing you cannot do because you’re a woman. Nothing.
What’s the saddest experience you’ve had on International Women’s Day?
The day I was born [in 1972]. My paternal aunt came to the hospital for my birth, and when she saw my sex, she was so disappointed. I was the third girl, and my aunt shamed my mom — she called my mom ugly and useless. As a kid, people called me names like amalayat, which means prostitute [in the local language of Teso].
My mom would dodge the question when I asked her what it meant. Finally when I was about 10 years old and learned what that word meant, I promised my mother that I would grow up and be successful to embarrass the people who called me names. I made a promise to work hard, go to school and bring home food. Being born a girl was scandalous and not celebrated. I don’t want other girls to feel that way.
Does International Women’s Day make your birthday extra special?
Yes, there’s a reason why my birthday falls on Women’s Day. The way I celebrate my birthday is to make a difference. It makes me happy to stand in front of a group of women on Women’s Day. I think my family have a cake for me at home, but i’m not there [today]. I’m always out doing something for women and girls on my birthday — it’s what makes me happy.
Shaina Shealy is a radio producer and freelance journalist based in Oakland, California, focusing on religion, the Middle East and women’s health and safety. You can find her on twitter @shainashealy