A Ugandan Lawyer's Passage From Skeptical Little Girl to 'Pleader for Women'

By Nora Boustany
Friday, June 16, 2006

By the time she was 7, Miria Matembe was already aware of the unfairness women and girls endured in Uganda.

Her father ran a small kiosk in Mbarara, a trading center in western Uganda, where he sold banana and meat cakes, beans and ground nuts.

Her mother stayed home to look after the couple's nine children and raise produce in a small garden for the family. But Matembe's father never gave his wife credit for her hard work.

When her parents fell behind on school fees, it was always Miria, not her older brother, who had to stay home until a payment could be made.

And on days when her mother had community activities, Miria had to watch her younger siblings, carry produce to market and prepare the evening meal.

"I remember I didn't like it," recalled Matembe, 52, a lawyer, activist and former member of parliament.

Matembe is currently in Washington as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow with the National Endowment of Democracy. During her time here, she will study women's involvement in the politics of different democracies and attempt to identify ways to boost the participation of women in Ugandan politics.

When she was a child, women from the village would complain to Matembe's mother about being abused at home. Among them was a paternal aunt who took over her husband's parenting role while he stayed away for months at a time working in the city. When he came back, he would beat her. She often took refuge with the Matembes, but her brother would send her home, telling her she was "useless."

"I am not useless, I produced sons. When I was a bride, I brought cows into my home as my dowry," Matembe recalled her aunt saying.

"That all made me feel worse," Matembe said. "It shaped my interest and the fire inside me. I wanted to fight the status quo, and though living in a rural setting, I yearned for empowerment and for a platform. I dreamed of gathering these women and telling them: 'You are being treated badly.' "

Matembe began studying history in secondary school. Early on, she became interested in law because she wanted to "become a pleader for women," she said.

One day when she was 13 and in school, her mother came to take her out of classes and put her in a teacher's training college, where classes were free. Crestfallen, Matembe dragged her mother to the office of the district education officer. "Sir, I want school fees," she told him. She explained her predicament to him. Soon after, she was informed that she could stay in school.

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