Since 2008, I have been researching rural women and tourism development, including the gender impacts of tourism. My work has consistently concurred with other scholar arguments about the influence of gender expectations and norms on women’s meaningful engagement in tourism including posing limitations on their time to attend to social and tourism demands. I have also come to learn about, and appreciate, the different ways through which rural women circumvent some of their gender-based constraints, to join and engage in the tourism work space while gaining positive social-economic outcomes for themselves and their families, as well as disrupting some traditional gender relations.
Therefore, tourism not only creates opportunities for local community livelihoods but also works as an avenue for rural women to confront traditional marginalisation and associated gender inequalities. By earning their own income, spending on things that matter to their lives, and becoming economically independent beings, rather than depending on their husbands, women in a Ugandan eco-tourism destination are gaining opportunities for themselves, families and community at large. This piece highlights how women in a traditionally male dominated society of South Western Uganda (Mukono Parish), close to Bwindi Impenetrable National park are breaking through some of the traditional norms to become tourism entrepreneurs and employees, while enabling key social-economic changes in their locality.
Patriarchy as a key organizing system
Patriarchy provides a foundation upon which unequal gender relations are constituted, nurtured and maintained. It shapes the different opportunities for men, women, girls and boys, with opportunities more skewed to men than women. Sylvia Walby (1990) defined patriarchy as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women. It informs the social gender norms and relations, including who does what, how and why, across different generations. The patriarchal dividend accords men higher social entitlements around material assets, status and authority, while positioning women and girls to lower and less lucrative social opportunities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Patriarchy therefore plays a role in shaping women and men’s unequal access to resources and freedoms, thus affecting their voice, power and sense of self. It creates severe cultural inhibitions to the aspiration and productive capacity of women. Gender norms intersect with other norms and inequalities such as age, race and ethnicity, class, disability, to further disadvantage women and girls. As women join the tourism sector, they face gender related constraints especially with balancing family care roles and tourism economic demands and strong patriarchal systems, as previously noted by other studies (UNWTO, 2019; Handaragama & Kusakabe, 2021; UNCTAD, 2017; Nomnga, 2017; Tshabalala & Ezeuduji, 2016; Parashar, 2014; World Bank, 2013).Nevertheless, the tourism sector opens opportunities for confronting patriarchy and its associated inequalities, while enabling gender equality outcomes in various tourism destinations.
Gorillas conservation, community-based tourism and livelihood shifts
In the wake of gorilla conservation at Bwindi Impenetrable National park, South Western Uganda in 1991, various tourism income generating opportunities came up. A mix of community-based tourism initiatives such as cultural dances, handcraft shops, agri-tourism ventures and accommodation facilities have since been opened up by both local men and women. While local livelihoods have been diversified beyond subsistence farming to incorporate tourism-based businesses, their operations are influenced by the local gender dynamics. For instance, cultural dances and handcraft production are mainly run by women and youth while men have taken on several management roles across the different community owned tourism initiatives, especially the lodges, guiding and leadership roles.
Nevertheless, progress has been made with some women venturing into tourism as entrepreneurs, especially, through the collective approach. A case in point is the ride 4 a woman women’s initiative founded by a local woman, and works with other women members, to go beyond cultural performances and handcrafts, to owning a lodge that doubles as an income generating activity and a shelter for domestically violated women. This investment has become a key milestone for women who come together to work but also speak about addressing domestic violence and protecting their personal dignity, and that of their fellow women and girls. Women have also invested in microfinance schemes through which they save, access credit and reinvest in non-tourism businesses such as farming and tailoring. Their work has eased their burdens in terms of paying school fees for their children, catering for household items and family nutrition.
In addition, there are changes around women investing in women’s non-traditional assets such as land and houses. These outcomes have become important “statements” that signify tourism’s potential for social-economic change. Overtime, my research has indicated the critical role of women’s tourism collectives to advance common and individual goals, and the ability to go beyond their personal agenda to contributing to family and community needs.
Confronting patriarchy and enabling social change
The experiences of women living in a rural tourism destination of Mukono, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park allude to the understanding that ecotourism presents opportunities for rural and less educated women, creating avenues for challenging patriarchy and cultural status quo, and enabling changes in the social arena. This is consistent with similar works in other contexts in Cameroon (Kimbu and Ngoasong, 2016) and Turkey (Tucker,2007). Secondly, the importance of women’s collectives is critical for their entry into the tourism space and associated gains. Women’s tourism income generating opportunities have not only uplifted them but have also enabled the wellbeing of their families and the wider community , while creating positive local perceptions about women working outside the home. If such efforts continue to be supported and strengthened, they will go a long way to contribute to gender equality and wellbeing at various levels. Finally, while the global COVID19 pandemic has affected women’s tourism gains, more information on how women working in tourism in Bwindi and other Ugandan rural eco-tourism destinations have been able to deal with the adverse effects of the pandemic and the alternative livelihoods that shielded them from the recent COVID19 shocks.
Written by Brenda Boonabaana, Makerere University, Uganda & University of Texas at Austin, USA
Read Brenda’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
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