Training for Women’s Human Rights in Africa; WUS Austria and Uganda, 1993-99

During the 1990s, WUS Austria – in close cooperation with WUS Uganda – contributed to strengthening women’s human rights in Africa through a unique training programme. These annual postgraduate courses on human rights of women for African academics, scholars, students, teachers and activists ran from 1993 to 1999 with the financial assistance of the Austrian Development Cooperation, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The programme paved the way for new knowledge networks, joint academic and civil society activities, novel learning pathways, institutional developments and sustainable global cooperation in the true WUS spirit and remains a cherished memory for all those involved. As a young university lecturer, I had the privilege to organize the courses together with many colleagues and friends within and beyond the WUS family. 

Initiated by Dorota Gierycz (UN Division for the Advancement of Women), Dorothea Gaudart (University of Vienna and Austrian UNESCO Commission) and Wolfgang Benedek (as Professor at the University of Graz and Chairman of WUS Austria), the courses were open for men and women in Anglophone African countries to provide knowledge and expertise on international women’s human rights to foster societal change, empower women and strengthen gender equality. It was a true WUS initiative, stemming from the conviction that cross-border academic cooperation to support quality education, ensure academic freedom and empower learners lead to change and progress in the spirit of human rights and equality. Over the years, more than 150 participants from 28 states in Africa and beyond – young students, established parliamentarians, women’s rights activists, practicing lawyers, school teachers, NGO staff, scholars and researchers – demonstrated the diversity and breadth of women’s human rights issues in Africa. 

The postgraduate courses were meant to translate abstract international norms, standards and principles on women’s human rights into meaningful tools for change on the African continent. Teaching and learning about international human rights law, gender equality and women’s agency were conceived as means for empowerment and participation in support of African local activists, researchers, academics, teachers, scholars, politicians and decision-makers in light of their own experiences, expectations and needs. The courses provided legal literacy for those active in strengthening women’s participation and achieving gender equality in the Global South by connecting international human rights law and its institutions with African realities. The syllabi comprised theoretical knowledge and practical experiences and connected research with activism. Participants learned about international human rights law, the United Nations, regional human rights systems, socio-economic, civil-political and cultural rights of women, strategies for empowerment, countering discrimination and ensuring equality. Lectures, workshops and study visits allowed for discussions about issues such as women’s rights in Islam, the situation of women in prisons, female genital mutilation, women in armed conflict or the plight of female refugees. The course participants brought with them experiences, knowledge, questions and demands which they wove into the fabric of the international human rights movement and connected their work, teaching, research and activism with like-minded colleagues. 

The first two courses were held at the premises of the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Stadtschlaining. At the old “peace castle” (a mediaeval castle converted into a unique teaching facility in the rolling hills of Austria’s easternmost province, Burgenland, close to the Hungarian border) the course participants found the time and tranquility to immerse themselves in human rights learning and research, guided by a faculty of internationally renowned experts from all over the world. Stadtschlaining’s “International House” provided the home for colleagues from Madagascar to Togo and from South Africa to Egypt. The subsequent courses from 1995-1999 took place in Kampala, facilitated by Uganda’s Makerere University (more specifically, the University’s Human Rights and Peace Centre) and supported by the regional office of the Austrian Development Agency (in the person of Ambassador Toni Maier). But it was first and foremost Irene Kisuule from WUS Uganda who soon become the heart and soul of the whole enterprise. Her determination, resourcefulness and never-ending optimism were crucial for the success of the courses. The close and faithful cooperation between WUS Austria and WUS Uganda (and between myself and Irene) during these years wove a strong Euro-African bond which stands as testimony to the values of WUS: crossing borders and connecting minds. 

Today, such human rights courses and learning opportunities are widespread. In the early 1990s, few comparable learning pathways existed and hardly any of them connected African experiences with the global human rights movement and academia. All of us who had the chance to contribute remain proud to have used our global WUS network for creating such a cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary and interconnected learning opportunity. Many renowned colleagues have contributed to the courses, some have made their first appearance as emerging voices, and everyone involved has learned a lot about African realities, challenges and obstacles in realizing human rights and experiencing the formative role of human rights education in society. Together with our partners, WUS Austria and WUS Uganda have jointly paved the way for subsequent learning activities as similar courses were developed out of this experience, reaching into francophone Africa, dealing with new topics and involving new target groups. WUS can claim to have been at the forefront of this kind of academic cooperation. Alumni went on to use the knowledge and skills in their work, changed jobs, established legal and policy initiatives, lobbied in parliament, founded NGOs, organized conferences and created training programs. All of them became ambassadors for WUS and its values. The courses can also claim to have contributed to better understand the link between sustainable development in Africa and human rights, clarify the human rights-based approach to development, connect the law and politics of human rights, and give a voice to African experiences. The cooperation with so many partners from Kampala to Hong Kong, from New York to Strasbourg and from London to Antananarivo established a lasting net of academic cooperation and personal friendships. 

Even though the aim of establishing the courses at Makerere University were unsuccessful, the collaborative efforts of teachers and participants in the seven years the courses were run led to a rich output of new knowledge. A collection of texts emerging from the courses became a popular book: Wolfgang Benedek, Esther M. Kisaakye and Gerd Oberleitner (eds), The Human Rights of Women – International Instruments and African Experiences (ZED Books 2002). The courses also allowed important insights into the potential and pitfalls of human rights education in a global, interconnected and interdisciplinary perspective and were instructive for the way they improved human rights teaching and learning critically, constructively and reflectively in a global setting and clarified goals, mechanisms and methods for human rights learning.  

Author profile

Professor Gerd Oberleitner was involved in 1993-1999 in the post-graduate courses in human rights for women in Africa, a joint WUS Austria and WUS Uganda program, and co-edited a collection of texts from the courses, The Human Rights of Women – International Instruments and African Experiences (ZED Books, 2002). He currently holds the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Human Security at the University of Graz, Austria and is Director of the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy at that university.