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Gender Divide in Uganda: Norms, Myths, and Household Consumption

This guest post was contributed by Laurel Steinfield, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford.  Laurel’s research frames the concept of “materialism” as a social judgement against the aspirations of disadvantaged groups, whether working class, blacks, or females.  Laurel has been closely involved in the studies of sanitary care in Uganda, including both the study of household purchase decisions described here and the test of eco-preferable alternatives to disposable sanitary pads. 

We asked respondents to sort goods into piles in answer to questions. Here we see one of the groupings that responded to the question: “What do women consider necessary that men do not consider necesary?” This woman’s answer–a typical one–includes hair extensions and face cream, but also toilet paper and toothpaste.

My first trip to Uganda, I was privileged to accompany Linda Scott, my supervisor, to the field.  Linda has previously written about our work in understanding the gender dynamics of household consumption and how they reflect the patriarchal system of Uganda (read here). We found that goods representing “indulgences” for women, such as lipstick, sanitary pads, hair extensions, and skin whitening cream, were treated as luxuries and very rarely (if ever) bought.  What we might consider “indulgences” for men, mostly liquor, were seen as normal items of consumption.  These became necessities while women’s personal goods were luxuries.

Underlying these divisions and the way men and women think about consumption are norms, myths, and practices. And so I’m going to pick up where Linda left off and discuss in more depth the backdrop which shaped our findings, as well as the subsequent research that Catherine Dolan and I undertook.

Reflecting on the gender norms in Uganda, I found that work by Professor Peter Glick and Professor Susan Fiske was helpful to understand the ways women in Uganda were idealized and penalized. Glick and Fisk discuss how benevolent versus hostile sexism are reflected in ideological and structural mechanisms (such as patriarchy, sexual reproduction, and role and trait differentiations), which maintain gender inequities. Ideologies of benevolent sexism frame women positively if they assume the conventional roles as nurturers and remain dependent on men for protection and provision. Ideologies of hostile sexism frame women negatively if they try to usurp men’s power. (A thorough explanation of Glick and Fiske’s work can be seen here).

In a similar fashion, we found Ugandan women who challenge the normal gender roles are framed by hostile sexist remarks. A great book that discusses women’s experiences with sexism in Uganda and the transitions that have occurred in Uganda’s gender roles, is Kyomuhendo and McIntosh (2006), Women, Work, and Domestic Virtue in Uganda, 1900-2003. The authors discuss how the “Domestic Virtue Model” was established by African and British male leaders, and as such, it has vestiges of Victorian era gender roles. It is a model that defines a good women as one who: is married, provides service for her husband, bears children, cares for them, is responsible for providing (and often growing) food for her family, remains in her husband’s compound of its fields, is submissive to male authority, and displays deference to her husband and to all males in public spaces. A woman should not be expected to make decisions, except in regards to minor domestic matters. A woman should not hold control or ownership over land or her children.

An ad appearing in a Ugandan government publication illustrates benevolent and hostile sexism.

An ad published in the Uganda Argus, a government publication, illustrates this belief. It suggests Ovaltine will help a woman escape the threat of hostile sexism (she is a “bad wife” as she has no energy and cannot do the housework properly) and live up to the requirements of benevolent sexism (she is rewarded as a “wonderful wife” because she has gained energy, cleaned the house, and served her husband).

These expectations help to explain why women’s needs are second-class. Society deemed a “good” woman as one who first served her husband, then her family, and finally, herself (if any money, energy, or time remained).  In our fieldwork, Linda and I found that if a household ever bought sanitary pads it would be a mother who would buy the pads for her daughters – very rarely did any woman buy them for herself.

Another normative force keeping the gender norms intact is the legitimization of violence against women. A study conducted by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics found that over 73% of rural women (that’s right – women!) and over 63% of rural men thought that there was a legitimate reason for a wife to be beaten. The graph below gives an indication of some of the main reasons, which, once again, revolve around a woman fulfilling her domestic and wifely duties.  These norms are not only enshrined through acculturation, but they are enforced through violence.

We can understand how these gender dynamics are perpetuated in rural areas: women often do not know about their rights or cannot invoke them for fear of ramifications imposed by the community or their own family.

Progress is occurring in urban Uganda with women becoming more liberal and progressive in their lifestyles, but the research I undertook with university students in Kampala showed a strong connection of young urban woman to the ideals of the Domestic Virtue Model.  Many of the young women professed that they one day expected to get married, have children, and, if their husband’s income allowed for it, they would want to stay at home to fulfill a woman’s duties to her family. And, as the graph shows, the majority of urban women (55.5%) still believe that violence is acceptable.

It is interesting to note that the only group with a minority believing violence is acceptable are urban males (44.6%).  My own interviews with male university students suggested a shift in their beliefs about how a woman should be treated – that is, with more dignity, although the majority wanted their future wives to stay at home so that they themselves could earn the status of being a proper provider. So, as much as there is a Domestic Virtue Model imposed upon women that is limiting their consumption, mobility, and pursuit of occupations, there is a growing “Provider Virtue Model” being imposed upon men.

Myths were the other underlying force shaping consumption in Uganda. An interesting tale was told by a woman in one of our focus groups to explain why the goods women deem as “necessary” (lipstick, hair extensions, skin whitening cream, sanitary pads) were never bought. Her theory was that women’s personal items were very rarely bought because if a woman asked her husband for the money to get hair extensions or lipstick, he would assume that she was buying these things to woo another man. So a woman would never ask her husband for money or for these things, for fear that he might suspect her of cheating – which would be legitimately punishable by violence.  A woman’s own needs for self-expression, her own desires to feel beautiful, and her own needs to hold standing in the community, were never considered. Instead, a woman who bought these things was labeled as a “malaya” – a prostitute. These beliefs prevented women from asking men for money for these “indulgences” in the first place, and as such, men protected their income and their ability to indulge in things they believed were priorities.

We did not realize when she told this story that her husband was also in the group.  In subsequent interviews, we learned that they were a very liberal and open-minded couple. Perhaps it was because she knew her husband would support her that she spoke out against the classification of women’s goods as unnecessary luxuries.

The second time I went back to the field with Catherine Dolan, we put the exploratory research findings into a measurable household survey format, in order to see how pervasive these normative influences were on household consumption practices. 64 households were interviewed, with both the male head of house and female head of house interviewed at the same time but in separate locations (so that they wouldn’t be influenced by each other’s answers). In total, 128 interviews were conducted. We did find similar results with the classification of things women thought were necessary versus what men thought were unnecessary, and vice versa.

As we suspected, items women rated as “necessary” were omitted from household purchases. In answer to the question “What does the household NEVER buy?” women’s personal goods most often appeared.

Summer 2012 survey shows things thought necessary by women less likely to be bought.

These results show how norms and myths are reflected in practice. The lopsidedness of the household consumption is but the visible aspects of these invisible influences. Women remain dependent on men to buy them their “luxuries” because they are trapped by norms and myths that cause them to limit their own personal purchases.


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