Forough Olinga/Margaret Nakato Lubyayi

This paper gives an overview of adult education in Uganda, paying particular attention to rural development. The paper explores the importance of adult education in sustainable development and highlights some of the challenges faced in the bid to provide education für the adult population in Uganda. The paper focuses mainly on agriculture, which is the backbone of the Ugandan economy and on which most other sectors depend. Forough Olinga works for the Integrated Support to Sustainable Development and Food Security Programme of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in Uganda. Margaret Lubyayi is Chairperson of the Katosi Women Fishing and Development Association, Uganda. The article was first published in Africa Insight, Vol. 32 No. 1, March 2002, pp. 44-49. It was also presented at the Project Literacy Conference on Adult Education and Sustainable Development, November 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Role of Adult Education in Sustainable Development

Education Creates the Enabling Environment Necessary for Development

Uganda is a country of plateaux and hills, marshes and lakes, stretching between the two arms of the Great Rift Valley, at the heart of the Great Lakes region of East and Central Africa. Once described as “the pearl of Africa”, the name “Uganda” was derived from the ancient kingdom of Buganda, which occupied most of the central part of the country. After gaining independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda prospered briefly, then entered two decades of political turmoil, state-sponsered violence, economic decline and civil war.

The National Resistance Movement (NRM), led by the current President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, came to power on 26 January 1986, after a five year conflict. The NRM government has restored security in most parts of the country, re-established the rule of law, promoted freedom of expression, revived the economy and enabled widespread democratic participation in community and economic affairs.

Since 1993 Uganda’s economy has grown at around 7% per annum. Yet Uganda remains one of world’s poorest countries, ranked 158 out of 174 countries on UNDP’s Human Development Index for 1997.1 GNP per capita is estimated at US$330. Some 44% of the population live below the absolute poverty line of US$34 per capita per month, and only half the population have access to safe drinking water. Poverty is largely a rural phenomenon, and it is in the rural areas that nearly 86% of the Ugandan population live.

Uganda has a total population of 21 million, of whom 51% are women and 49% men. Agriculture is the backbone of the Ugandan economy, accounting for over 80% of the labour force. Most agricultural production comes from smallholders, the great majority of whom cultivate less than 2 hectares of land, using traditional methods of farming and family labour. The greater part of their cash income comes from traditional cash crops such as coffee, cotton, tea and tobacco, but income from the sale of food crops such as maize and beans is becoming increasingly important.2

Most people in rural areas derive their food and income from the crops they plant, the livestock they rear, and the fish they catch. Women carry out 70-80% of all agricultural work (digging, planting, weeding, harvesting, storage and processing) although they have little control over the land itself or the sale of cash crops (see Table 1). Traditionally, land belongs to men, who also control the sale of cash crops and large sales of food crops, although in some areas these traditions have changed in recent years.

Indicator or parameter

Percentage of total







Agriculture labour force

• Food production

• Planting



• Weeding



• Harvesting



• Processing/preparation



Access to and ownership of land and related means of production



Table 1: The contribution of women to agricultural development in Uganda

Source: Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Welfare, Kampala, Uganda, 2000.

In many parts of pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, land was considered sacred, and often regarded as female. Both men and women peasants had more or less equal rights to land in some parts of Uganda. Both men and women decided on the activities to be carried out on the land, and what to do with the proceeds from the land. This state of affairs changed as land gained a monetary value, primarily under the advent of colonialism. The first victims were women because rewards in the form of land mainly went to the educated males.

Access to land by women became largely determined by kinship rights, and as part of marriage. The emergence of a cash economy forced many men into direct competition with women for land access and the control of women’s productive labour. The loss of control over land was, of course, an abrogation of the human right of women to economic independence. Women had hence to be dependent on the very men who had destroyed their rights.


Education and Gender Inequality in Uganda

The importance of adult education in development cannot be overstated. Adult education is one of the pillars for sustainable development. This is because education should be an ongoing process in one’s life. The issue of adult education is becoming more important now, especially with the reality of gender awareness. Various authors point to the importance of female education in achieving sustainable development.3 However, the statistics relating to literacy in Uganda show that women lag behind men: only 57% of women are literate as compared to 74% for men. The significant proportion of the illiterate population in certain areas of the country, however, is over 50%, with women forming the greatest number.4 Poor farmers, in a participatory poverty assessment carried out in 1999 in rural areas, ranked lack of education and skills (after lack of access to markets) as the second greatest cause of their poverty.

In most Ugandan families, moreover, boys are considered a treasure. A woman who has not given birth to a boy in a family is considered worthless, as she is not able to produce an heir to carry on the family name and inherit the assets. The first schools that were established in Uganda for women were intended to train women who would become the wives of chiefs in mainly social graces and home economics. Obviously, this education was only suited to a very small number of women while many others continued to toil in the fields. Even later when schools were opened to more women, they were discouraged from taking subjects other than social sciences, which women are supposedly good at.

Limited efforts have been made to provide functional adult literacy to women and men who, through tilling the land, support the economy, which depends on agriculture. The World Bank has argued that education can help alleviate poverty and advance economic and social development.5 Numeracy and literacy are valuable skills for workers, even those outside the modern labour market such as rural farmers. For example, farmers with these basic skills can allocate inputs correctly and use products of technological change such as pesticides and medicines, thereby increasing productivity.6 Many fertilizers when wrongly used can cause damage both to the environment and their users. Unfortunately, women make up most of the illiterate population despite their significant contribution in agriculture.

Furthermore, educating women is noted to reduce fertility and lead to improved child health, among a host of benefits.7 Children of educated mothers have been found to live healthier and longer lives since women with education are more likely to seek professional health-care. It is thus the contention of the authors that education must be promoted at all levels if sustainable development is to be achieved. Given the country’s dependence on agriculture and women’s strategic position in the sector, women’s functional literacy, especially in agricultural activities, must be strongly promoted.

The Poverty Eradication Process in Uganda Since 1986

Since the coming into power of the National Resistance Movement in 1986, various processes have been put in place to boost the performance of the economy and eradicate poverty. During the second half of the 1990s the Government of Uganda launched a succession of important constitutional, legislative and policy initiatives, which embody principles, ideals and specific elements drawn from several UN conventions, conferences and other international treaties. These include:


  • the Ugandan Constitution (1995)

  • the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (1997/2000)

  • the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (2000)

  • the Local Government Act (1997)

  • the Universal Primary Education programme (1997)

  • the National Gender Policy (1997)

  • the Vision 2025 Strategic Framework for National Development (1998)

  • the Land Act (1998)

  • the National Health Policy and Stategic Plan (1998)


We shall examine some of these important initiatives that have been undertaken in Uganda in a bid to achieve sustainable development.

The Ugandan Constitution of 1995

The Ugandan Constitution was promulgated in 1995 and was widely welcomed by most Ugandans for its rights-based and gender-sensitive outlook. The Constitution clearly enshrines the equal rights of both men and women in Uganda. The Ugandan Constitution also paved the way for a decentralised system of government, which brings services closer to the people. Due to high illiteracy rates, however, many Ugandans are still unable to read or indeed understand their own Constitution.

The 1995 Uganda Constitution stresses the principles of gender equality. In agriculture, like in other sectors of our economy, gender is crucial since men and women play different roles. These complementary activities change over time and create new opportunities for both female and male farmers in technology generation, adoption and transfer. Therefore, gender dynamics are fundamental to planning and policy interventions.

The law is an important tool in enhancing agricultural activity. Some of the existing laws, however, are archaic and discriminate against women. Marriage laws, succession laws, divorce laws and many others still hold sway over rural women. Such laws often fail to protect women’s rights within and outside the home and call for immediate intervention and reform. The consequence of poor laws is eventually revealed in the poor performance of various sectors of the economy, including agriculture.

The Poverty Eradication Action Plan, 2000

The Government of Uganda, in consultation with various stakeholders, came up with a Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) in 2000. The PEAP is Uganda’s equivalent of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) required of developing nations by the World Bank. The Government has set poverty eradication as its top priority and as such the PEAP may be seen as the overriding policy to which other policies are expected to conform (e.g. gender policy, land policy and others).

The PEAP acknowledges that land ownership is a tool for poverty eradication and for achieving national development. The strategy also notes thal ownership of land is one of the most fundamental human rights in Uganda’s Constitution. However, the Government of Uganda recently contradicted itself by rejecting the inclusion of a clause on co-ownership of land by spouses that was advanced by various women activists. The argument advanced by those against the clause was that co-ownership would make land less marketable.8 Denied ownership of land and other property, women lack the security needed to acquire bank loans, which severely restricts their capacity to undertake productive activities, increase their incomes and ensure food security in their families.

The Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture, 2000

The PMA is a significant part of the Government’s broad poverty eradication strategy contained in the PEAP. The mission of the PMA is to “eradicat[e] poverty by transforming subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture”.9

The PMA contends that through the improvement of the welfare of poor subsistence farmers, there will be a re-orientation of production towards the market as more produce will be marketed to enable farmers to earn higher incomes. The following are the priority areas that were identified by poor farmers in Uganda and which will be the focus of the PMA:

1. Access to credit and financial services

2. Control of crop and livestock pests and diseases

3. Improved market access

4. Improved access to affordable inputs

5. Access to arable land – soil fertility, maximal land

6. Extension sevices that reach the people and offer advice, information and more productive methods, marketing and alternative income generation activities

7. Improved access to storage and processing facilities

The PMA notes the absence of education from the list of priorities, but attributes its omission to the introduction of Universal Primary Education (UPE). A critical review of this list underlines the need and inevitability of some form of adult education, as is already being seen in the implementation of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS).

The NAADS has been created largely in response to area number six above. Currently, the NAADS secretariat is co-ordinating training and sensitisation in pilot districts and the issue of illiteracy has already started being raised by the district officials, who observe that much of the training will be irrelevant to many of the poor farmers who cannot read or write. In a Tororo Workshop on Integrating Gender into the NAADS programme, one of the respondents noted that women were bound to lose out since many village women could not even count money and depended on the goodwill of buyers not to cheat them.10 Various district officials all over Uganda have also stated the need for imparting management skills to farmers if the NAADS objective of promoting a culture where farmers carry out “farming as a business” and not simply a means of subsistence is to be achieved.

Since Uganda is primarily an agricultural country, most economic activities of women are in agriculture, and the PMA aims to mainstream gender in all agricultural activities and thereby effectively to involve men and women as equal partners at all levels in agricultural development. The mainstreaming of gender is perceived as important because women constitute the majority of small-scale farmers. It is also acknowledged that women and men have distinct roles and responsibilities that demand specific actions and incentives. The women of Uganda are anxiously hoping that the good intentions of this plan are not derailed at implementation stage.


The process of decentralisation, begun in the early 1990s, aims to improve administrative performance, enhance transparency, and strengthen the accountability of government to the people. Decentralised structures have been designed to make government more sensitive to the needs of the people and have already brought radical changes to the functions of central government ministries.

However, the effectiveness of these structures is undermined by the lack of capacity within many local governments. For example, some positions such as the Sub-County Chief require various duties which call for further training above the required qualifications set by government. Another solution to this critical dilemma would be the arrangement of specialised (functional) literacy courses to ensure that the officials who are elected by the people remain in office and still discharge their duties efficiently and effectively. The main limitation would be financial since these officials face the risk of not being re-elected, meaning that others would have to be trained after every election.

Case Study


Impact of Adult Literacy on Sustainable Development

Katosi Women Fishing and Development Association is an association of rural women in Katosi who got together to improve their general socio-economic standards of living. By initiating and promoting women’s income-generating activities through the provision of credit, some success has been achieved, but this is limited by the high illiteracy levels among the women.

For many of the women, the Association gave them their first opportunity to handle money or to run a business. Many of the initial businesses failed and the rate of default was high; this nearly brought about the collapse of the revolving loan fund. Members did not keep records and were not even aware of whether they were making profits or losses. The women of the Association, noting a need, sought help and received training in business management and book-keeping, as well as how to conduct feasibility studies.

A two-day training course was organised for the women, which helped them to better understand their businesses and how to run them. Some members even started new businesses after which general success was recorded in most of the businesses run by women in the Association. They were excited by their progress and have been requesting further training.

Gender, Adult Education and Development

Although education plays an undeniable role in development, it cannot on its own create the desired changes in society due to the damaging effect of certain issues such as societal traditions and cultures on women’s advancement. Below are some of the areas where adult education can make a significant impact and consquently contribute to sustainable development.

Adult education should, first of all, be community-oriented. The content of such education should involve life in its entirety, and try to impart to individuals and to the community all the skills needed to manage one’s life. The success of some development programmes depends on how educated the target group is.

One such example is the area of rural micro-finance. Most of the micro-finance clients in Uganda are women, who are mainly semi-literate and illiterate. The reason for this state of affairs is that they have less wealth and productive assets than most of their male counterparts.

The case of the Katosi Women Fishing and Development Association shows that functional adult literacy, focused towards daily livelihood activities, can be interesting and beneficial and instil confidence in those who receive it. This is because functional adult literacy is usually premised on the fact that the learners have basic knowledge and simply need to acquire skills to help them do what they do more efficiently, as is the case with the Katosi Women Fishing and Development Association.

Adult education should be considered a process of learning throughout life, and not limited to specific periods. The system should be very flexible and the place of education should be where the need arises. Sometimes adult literacy must be gender-focused, as in the above case, since women are mostly involved in agricultural activities and yet have a need for functional literacy.

The biggest number of Ugandans who will need adult education in the near future will be women because of the hardships faced by girls in the formal education structure. Even with Universal Primary Education (UPE), which provides free government education for all children, girls’ education is suffering. The Ugandan Government has emphasised the fact, and it is clearly articulated in the Constitution, that all children should be treated equally in access to resources. However, when mothers need somebody to care for younger children in the home while they are away in the gardens, girl children are often the first consideration, leading to distraction from studies and eventual drop out.

There are other reasons that may be advanced for focusing on women in development and some of them are as follows:

  • Women tend to contribute a higher proportion of their income (94%) to family subsistence, holding back less for personal consumption.


  • It is mothers’ rather than fathers’ incomes or food production that are more closely related to children’s nutrition.


  • Women are more responsible than men for the full range of reproductive activities.


  • Women often give primacy to income-generating activities.


  • With respect to labour, time budget studies invariably find that women work longer hours (due largely to the “double day” phenomenon, of performing first productive and then reproductive tasks).


  • Various studies world-wide have shown women to be more responsive to loan repayment.

In addition to the above issues, and despite efforts to improve women’s lives worldwide, recent statistics confirm the existence of growing numbers of female heads of household. Households headed by women are more likely to be poor than male-headed ones. This is due to the fact that they tend to have little by way of productive resources, such as land, coupled with a large number of dependents. There has been a notable increase in women-headed households in sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, rural women are becoming more responsible for household food security and children’s welfare. Women head an estimated 45% of rural households in Kenya, 35% in Malawi, 30–40% in Zambia and 15% in Nigeria.

Circumventing Gender Bias through Superior Intellect?

An amusing, but telling, example of gender inequality and a form of empowerment in Uganda relates to the taboo prohibiting women from riding a two-wheeled bicycle. The reason for the taboo has to do with the belief that a woman who straddles a bicycle seat is somehow “compromised” and no longer a respectable woman. Rather than focus their energies exclusively on changing this perception, a group of women smallholder farmers designed a three-wheel bicycle that uses a bench seat rather than a conventional bicycle seat. As a result, women are able to benefit from the convenience and efficiency of a bicycle – or tricycle – and still avoid transgressing a local taboo.

In addition to acknowledging this as an innovative solution to a cultural problem, it should be noted that other creative features were also added to the bicycle’s design, such as an umbrella to provide shade for the women and their children, and a large storage area for food and supplies.


The societal pressures of a patriarchal system keep women from political positions and sometimes from engaging in gainful employment. Women who toe the line, keeping within the traditional and cultural confines, are rewarded while those who break out of the mould are punished in various ways. Some of the rewards and punishments are overt while others are subtle. For example, it is not uncommon for men to abandon their wives if they venture into politics.

On another level, the media are relatively intolerant of any mistakes made by women politicians and will waste no time in ridiculing them. The same media will rarely find time to report on issues where women make significant political contributions and would much rather focus on their personal lives.

Women’s role in politics recently received a boost from women activists who started organising leadership training events for women before different levels of elections. This may be responsible for the slight increase in the number of women in the Seventh Parliament of Uganda.


Micro-finance has been cited to be necessary in development in both rural and urban areas. The biggest clients of micro-finance institutions are women, who rarely have business skills to make significant investments, as do their male counterparts who may quickly overtake the women in terms of clientele.

Formal Employment Sector

Even within the formal sector, women lag behind men and often earn less money for similar Work. This still persists even though the Government of Uganda has put up a half-hearted campaign to stop such practices. Many women fear that reporting such cases will lead to the loss of their jobs, which would make their lives even harder. There is a need for the development of stratigic guidelines for gender balance in staff recruitment, training, and promotion for both women and men employees.

Women need to be targeted in areas of training and capacity building to help them improve their marketability in the job market. The challenge, however, is much bigger and the success that training and capacity building can achieve is limited given the reality of the “glass ceiling”. Often women receive promotions up to a certain level, but this tends to stop at lower or middle management and stays there –“glass ceiling” phenomenon is that it is hard to prove as most employers argue that promotion is given on merit. having reached the unspoken limit for female employees in a majority of companies. The problem with the

Adult Education and Empowerment

Education is a very powerful tool of liberation. Educated people can analyse situations, define strategies, draw up programmes of action, and opt for a better deal on any socio-economic and indeed political matter. There have been some arguments which assert that the leading elite stands to lose by educating the ignorant masses, who would then be more critical of and possibly overthrow self-gratifying regimes. This argument was highlighted during the most recent presidential elections when the rural masses, who are largely illiterate, voted for the incumbent president. The people in urban areas overwhelmingly voted for the opposition leader.

The experiences of most East Asian countries indicate that one of the important aspects that have boosted their high economic growth rates, has been the implementation of policies that focus on more equitable human recource development.

Based on such assumptions, then, and the obvious need, it is recommended that African governments in the region, as a matter of critical concern, mainstream gender in rural development and agricultural planning systems. Further research should be undertaken into the root causes of inequality, which should then be tackled in order to ensure sustainable development. African governments should then adopt and implement strategic guidelines for gender balance in staff recruitment, training and promotion in the agricultural sector.

It can be demonstrated that gender disaggregated socio-economic data in all countries in the region informs the planning process in agricultural projects. In this regard, it would be helpful to establish agender disaggregated socio-economic data base system that can produce adequate, relevant and accurate information to address gender issues in development planning.

It is critical that gender imbalances that may affect productivity are highlighted and addressed. Moreover, governments in the region should boost rural finance programmes by training their members to ensure that maximal use of credit is made. Studies show that women use credit as effectively as men when it is available. Moreover, their repayment rates are generally much higher.

At the same time, disadvantaged communities should be involved in the planning, implementation and monitoring of the programmes aimed at combating poverty in their lives.


Although the challenge is huge, there are positive indications of political will among African leaders. Africa is experiencing an increase in leaders with a vision of sustainable development, with a focus on rural communities. The real ofjective of development should be to create an enabling environment for all people to use the available methods for their well-being.

To think that education is the cure for all the development problems faced by Africa would be utopian but we must acknowledge the empowerment and enlightenment that can be gained from relevant and people-focused education. Education gives people choices and thus power – and educated people will tend to reject detrimental policies and make informed choices of leaders and development patterns.


1 UNDP, Human Development Index, Geneva: UNDP, 1997.

2 Uganga: Promise Performance and Future Challenges, Common Country Assessment of the United Nations Agencies Working in Uganda, Kampala: UNDP, 2000.

5 E. Kane, Seeing for yourself: Research handbook for girls’ education in Africa, Washington DC: World Bank, 1996.

6 K. Subbarao and L. Raney, Social gains from female education: a cross-national study, Washington DC: World Bank, 1993; Lockheed and Verspoor 1994.

7 Kane 1996.

8 Uganda Land Alliance, Workshop on the Launch of the Working Document on a National Land Policy, Kampala, 26 October 2001.

9 Government of Uganda, The Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA), Kampala: Government Printer, 2000, p vii.

10 CEEWA-U, Integrating Gender into the NAADS Programme, Report on a gender sensitization workshop, Tororo, July 2001.

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