Sisters Evelyn Schiller and Atuki Turner set up Mifumi in the late 1980s after becoming aware of how women and young girls were treated in their home country of Uganda and witnessing this brutality firsthand from a young age. Atuki recalls seeing women being savagely beaten by partners, young women with their genitals cut and women tied to trees where they were tortured and tormented.
Shortly after studying law at university Atuki met her English husband Glyn and moved to the UK and set up Mifumi with her sister. Since then Atuki and Evelyn have dedicated their lives to fighting for women’s rights.
Both women work from Mifumi’s UK office, which carries out the initial groundwork; of applying for grants, conducting research and liaising with the Ugandan office in order to run the projects on the ground.
The organisation has a long-term relationship with Comic Relief, who with the support of UKaid (from the Department for International Development) are supporting African Diaspora organisations, enabling them to create a bigger impact and reduce poverty and injustice in Africa.
“Bride price is a slave-like practice which dehumanises women and turns them into commodities,” explains Evelyn. “Previously all men had to pay a bride price to marry, which was given in livestock and meant that a woman was a man’s property and he could do whatever he wanted with her. It was so common for a woman to be beaten and abused.”
Evelyn adds that the younger the girl, the higher the price paid to her parents for marriage, which resulted in many young girls being sold into marriage. One victim who visited a Mifumi supported project is Mary, who was 14-years-old when she was sent by her father to her aunt’s house for what she thought was a routine visit. Suddenly, she found herself married to a man she had never met before, who paid her father a bride price and locked her up in a hut to ensure that she did not escape. The schoolgirl was verbally and sexually abused and later fell pregnant. When Mary’s mother, who was also pregnant at the time, confronted her husband about this he physically assaulted her.
“Bride price was so socially acceptable we thought, ‘how are we going to tackle bride price? It’s like tackling culture.’ Even the priest wouldn’t marry you if you hadn’t been paid a bride price. We were scared of making enemies everywhere and bringing down all the good work that we had done.” says Evelyn.
To overcome cultural and traditional resistance Mifumi consulted with local churches before travelling to Rome to visit the Vatican, who sent out a memo discouraging the practice of bride price to priests, resulting in many religious figures lending their support to the organisation. Mifumi then created the Women’s Safety Forum in the Ugandan province of Tororo, which still provides much needed support for women suffering from abuse. The Community Safety Forum is made up of key men from the area including councillors, village chiefs and priests to shame abusers and make them think about their behaviour.
Mifumi currently has a case before the Ugandan constitutional court seeking to declare bride price illegal. Due to recent legal changes, it is now illegal for men to ask for a bride price refund, which has enabled women to leave abusive marriages. The organisation has also campaigned for clarity surrounding property laws, which now entitle women to half of the household, which Evelyn says has scared abusers and reduced marital violence.
To free the younger generation from the cycle of ‘acceptable’ abuse Mifumi provide Feel Free education packs across schools in Eastern Uganda, which has made a real difference. “Girls’ expectations in life have been raised and many are hoping for a career. Now, for the first time we have girls taking a stand against bride price and refusing to be married off. Girls are now reporting that they think their parents are planning to sell them into marriage. Crucially, we also have victims of bride price coming to us with the realisation that there is help available for them, of which the story of Mary and her family is a typical case.
Thanks to Mifumi Mary and her mother were given counselling, support and guidance, medical treatment and a start-up pack enabling them to set up a business and rent a property. Now mother and daughter have both given birth and are successfully managing their lives.