A week ago, at the entrance to Kolping hotel in Hoima municipality, two despondent-looking women, with children on their backs, pitched camp waiting to be let into a women emancipation workshop organised by Global Rights Alert.
Once inside the conference, the two narrated heart-rending stories about how their husbands excluded them from sharing the spoils of the compensation by oil companies that have displaced people in western Uganda to secure land for the construction of a refinery.
One of the women, Evelyn Mwambe, 37, a resident of Nyamasoga in Kabaale parish in Buseruka sub-county, says she decided to return to her parents with her two children after the husband, Lawrence Ocowun, abandoned her shortly after receiving cash in April this year.
“I decided to return home in the same village since the house was almost collapsing and we had no gardens. One evening I waited for his return from Nyamasoga trading centre in vain,” said the 37-year-old woman.
Mwambe’s husband is reported to have built a permanent house in Sonsiyo village, Buliisa sub-county, Buliisa district, where he is now living with a younger woman. According to Mwambe, she abandoned efforts to search for him due to limited capacity to do so.
“I don’t have money to trace for him and get some support for these children. Imagine we worked together throughout the nine years and got our children Josephat Mungunoti and Sharon Nasande. I call upon leaders to help me and secure some help from him even if he doesn’t want me,” she pleaded.
Ocowun and his wife expected to receive between Shs 30m and Shs 40m million as compensation for their land. However, says Mwambe, Ocuwon kept her in the dark throughout most of the process of securing the money.
“He used to block me from accessing any document for compensation. I tried through leaders but I was not helped until all the forms were filled,” she said.
So far, oil companies operating in the Albertine graben area have displaced 7,118 persons from their land and compensated them as part of their move to secure 29 square kilometres of land on which a refinery will be constructed. The second victim, Rose Pacudaga, 37, who hails from Sonsiyo, said her husband, Adoki Ajarva, deserted their home in April after secretly buying land in Masindi. Adoki left Pacudaga with their child.
The Buseruka sub-county community development officer, Joy Kabatalya, told The Observer that cases of this nature have become all too common in the oil-rich sub-region. So far, she added, they have recorded 20 similar cases.
“We have tried to help some of them through court but no help has been secured so far,” she said.
Recently, during a fact-finding mission of the status of women affected by oil activities, the minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, Mary Karooro-Okurut, pledged to take up their issues. However, there has hitherto not been any visible response from the central government.
The Hoima district senior community development officer, Stanley Mboineki, says the issue needs to handle more at community level than involving the police. After the November 19 workshop, the in-charge of the Child and Family Protection unit, Grace Bigabwenkya, picked interest in the plight of the two woman and recorded their details.
“I am going to call these men and, where possible, get to them. We need to bring them together and see how the husbands can still support them. This is a serious case because innocent children are starving with their mothers,” he said.
Even if Bigabwenkya eventually helps the two women, he will only have dealt with the tip of the iceberg. The executive Director for Global Rights Alert, Winfred Ngabiirwe, said both the government and civil society have a lot of work to do to ensure that the rights of women in areas with serious extractive activities are respected.