1. Introduce yourself (Name, organization, and how long you have been involved in activism)
My name is Lyn Ossome and I am a researcher and senior faculty at Makerere University, Kampala. My activist work around women’s rights spans nearly two decades and has taken the form of organizational work and teaching. Nothing I have written doesn’t attempt to articulate the historical burdens of women and their continuities to date.
2. Describe the work that you have been doing as a women rights activism/defender in your country;
My approach to feminist emancipatory work is from the perspective of the global south, and by extension, the African diaspora. I have always claimed the freedom and necessity to speak and think alongside women everywhere who are oppressed and dispossessed by the historical processes of slavery, colonialism, and at this current conjuncture, monopoly financialized capitalism. My work is at the intersection of politics and political economy, which are the primary lenses through which I have most consistently tried to understand the situation of women in the world – of work, reproduction, community building, and in relation to the state and capital.
3. What do you think are the three most important women’s rights issues in your country and why?
I am Kenyan by birth but have lived and worked in many countries including Uganda at present, Sudan, South Sudan, and South Africa. My work as a researcher and scholar-activist has spanned the continent, and what strikes me in all these contexts despite the historically specific experiences of women there, has been the remarkable similarities in how women experience oppression and exploitation. It is difficult to rank these issues in order of significance, but my recurring preoccupation has been with rights that are attached to land and landed resources, because poor women everywhere still need recourse to common and communal lands to supplement family/household earnings and perform the function of socially reproducing not only their families, but also their communities. This is a historical burden that has not been eased by the massive entry of women into the labour market, and points to the adverse relationship that persists between them, capital, the state and the patriarchy.
4. What kind of limitations have you faced in your activism in your country and beyond, within the East and Horn of Africa region?
The work that women do in defense of our rights and dignity as women has and continues to be viewed with suspicion and met with various forms of resistance by the gatekeepers, whoever these may be. I have found that being aware of these actual or potential enemies of freedom – be it legal structures, various forms of state harassment, restrictive cultural norms or other forms of hostility – a useful basis of entry into any context of research and activism. When we think of ‘rights’ in the substantive sense of the word then we know we are always working within these limitations and struggling to negate or overcome them.
5. Do you feel like women rights are being treated as human rights? (If YES or NO, please provide reasons)
Yes and No. Yes in the sense that women’s activism across the decades have succeeded in placing the rights of women firmly on the agenda of and as human rights. Today women bounded by all sorts of identity markers – race, age, class, indigeneity, religion, sexuality, gender, and so on – can see themselves as being at least formally represented in political terms. No, in the sense that this recognition has remained for many women merely cultural and has failed to substantively account for the ways in which these identities reproduce oppression and exploitation when exposed to political and economic structures that do not take seriously the humanity of women.
6. Do you believe that the space for women rights activists/defenders in civil society is shrinking? If yes, why?
I do, yes. However, we know of contexts such as Ethiopia where women’s rights activists faced with extreme state repression on the funding front have been able to regroup and innovate and continue with the work that in fact seems to have brought them closer to the communities of the dispossessed. Shrinking civil society space is symptomatic of the nature of this civic space itself and its perpetual struggle with capitalist state, which makes room for activism and withdraws it depending on its imperatives at different times. It is not a sign of a permanent shrinking of space.
7. Do you feel protected in the work that you do? (If YES or NO, please provide reasons)
The greatest protection I have sought and found has always been in the solidarity of the movements themselves. Activist work is dangerous when we are isolated or insular.
8. Over the tenure of your activism, do you feel like you have been rewarded or recognized for the work that you do? (If YES or NO, please provide reasons)
My relationship with formal individual awards is a tenuous one. I have always felt that true recognition for the work we do relates to how far it travels, how communities shift as a result. This is sometimes a realization that does not occur in our lifetimes.
9. What do you envision is the landscape for women human rights defenders in the region?
I feel hopeful. I have, through many years of engagement with SIHA and other regional communities, seen the difference that consistent dedication of time, energy and resources on immediate issues can make. I have been most encouraged by the persistent challenge that women’s rights activists pose in the region to laws, policies, arbitrary arrests and murder to women, and by the courage that this kind of activism requires. I feel hopeful because ever younger generations of women are taking up this call. It does not get easier, but the communities become bigger and stronger and more militant.
10. What keeps you motivated to keep doing this work?
I think partly it has been the realization that so much what has felt like personal struggles, of violence, abuse, indignity, exploitation – are shared by so many other women everywhere. The possibility that the injuries we suffer as women shall be experienced in exactly the same ways by those who come after us, but that there is no inevitability about this.