Interview with Regina Bafaki, Executive Director – Action for Development (ACFODE)
WomenStrong is thrilled to partner with your organization. Could you talk more about the partnership? How are the two organizations collaborating now?
Regina: ACFODE is equally thrilled about the partnership with WomenStrong. The current partnership began in June 2023 and lasts until March 2024.
The funding supports a project aimed at increasing women’s groups’ income and asset ownership in Kasese, in Western Uganda, one of ACFODE’s districts of operation. The partnership will enable us to complete three vital activities:
- To conduct a needs assessment of women so that we can support them with digital financial services, particularly financial literacy
- To train the selected 90 women in social enterprises
- To coach women and their spouses on gender equality, power, and social and gender norms.
We will also produce communication materials for awareness-raising.
During our grant period, we are collaborating with other WomenStrong partners in their Learning Lab. The Lab presents ACFODE with an opportunity to learn from other partners and through capacity strengthening activities. We have had capacity conversations with the WomenStrong team to identify our needs, reflect, and synthesize them into priority areas that are addressed through a capacity building fund. The Learning Lab also gives us new insights and recommendations, and the WomenStrong team is accompanying us on this journey.
ACFODE has hosted Conversation Circles in the recent past. What is the benefit of these conversations, and how do they spur action?
Regina: True, ACFODE has organized conversation circles at the national and local levels, focusing on different issues or topics that range from democraticgovernance and women’s participation in politics and decision-making, to social and gender accountability, to gender equality and care work, gender equality and digitalization, gender and financial inclusion, social and gender norms, and demographic divides and opportunities.
The conversation circles enable stakeholders to engage on different issues and collectively come up with solutions. The interactions promote cross-learning among the participants and provide safe spaces in which problematic issues or challenges are discussed freely and solutions or strategies agreed upon. The conversation circles provide opportunities for collaboration and partnerships. A wealth of knowledge is generated through the conversation circles, compared to what can be gathered in formal meetings or workshops. The conversations have enabled ACFODE to reflect and to find innovations or approaches that are embraced by community members or participants. Conversation circles also contribute contextual information for new programs or interventions and promote inclusion in the development agenda of the country.
Action for Development hosts a mentorship program. Can you tell us about the history of the program and some of the success stories you have seen?
Regina: Since our founding 37 years ago, the organization has mentored young people through internships, usually for three months, and by placing them as volunteers within the organization for one or two years under the supervision of program officers. ACFODE’s mentoring program, “Decide Now,” in effect between 2017 and 2018, supported 50 young people (35 females and 15 males) ages 18-35. The youths were trained in skills, supported to unleash their potential, and encouraged to explore available opportunities within their communities for employability, career advancement, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Some of the topics covered in the mentorship were personal development, financial literacy, gender, and women’s rights. The mentors were ACFODE members, people working in the private sector, and civil society leaders.
Out of this initiative, another mentoring program, code named “Sauti Ya Sasa,” or “Voice for Now,” was born and implemented between 2018 and 2021, in two phases. Phase 1, from May 2018 to July 2019, attracted 30 mentees and 20 mentors. In this phase, we sought to increase the capacity of women and young people, who were actively engaged in civil society and leadership. They learned about governance and gender and increased their civic engagement, while they also had opportunities to network.
Phase 2, implemented between September 2020 and June 2021, had 45 mentees and 25 mentors. Though constrained by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the selected youth and young women learned all the skills of the first phase, as well as digital security, personal and professional branding, and entrepreneurship. The mentees had a lot of online engagement with their mentors. Most of the mentees applied the acquired skills in the organizations and spaces where the youths were active. Some founded organizations to make an impact in their communities, others mobilized resources for initiatives (including social enterprises), some took on leadership positions, and others acquired scholarships for further studies, found new jobs, or received promotions. Most mentees say they are better at public speaking, have become entrepreneurs, and are advocates of gender equality, thanks to their experiences with ACFODE.
More broadly, what changes are you seeing in Uganda?
Regina: Broadly, the changes I am seeing are first, that there is a big demographic divide; the biggest part of the population is youth, who have a more than 70 percent majority. There is a big wave of young people moving from the rural areas to urban centers; most are unemployed or are engaged in informal businesses. High fuel prices have contributed to high costs of living for these young people.
Women in Uganda have taken on key leadership positions: Vice President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, and cabinet ministers with government agencies. Political leaders are mobilizing citizens in preparation for the 2026 elections.
Though most women’s businesses were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them still hustle to take care of their families.
Many Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have reduced interventions and downsized their staff because of lower funding. There is a high uptake of digitalization, though there are challenges with related costs.
What have been some of the greatest challenges to overcome?
Regina: Some of the greatest challenges to overcome have been the social and gender norms that perpetuate gender inequality, deny women and girls access to social services, such as education and health information, and to productive resources, such as land and other assets. While we have been promoting women’s rights and gender equality over time, we still struggle with perceptions and attitudes toward women’s rights to participate in politics and decision-making. Some members of the community still believe that a women’s place is in the private sphere, while the public is reserved for the men. There is a lot of pushback on women’s rights and gender equality, as witnessed through increased cases of gender-based violence and the limited support for survivors of violence.
The other challenge has been shrinking civic spaces, through numerous regulations and frameworks governing CSOs. Securing core or institutional funding has been a challenge for us because most of the support is usually for a short term, ranging from between one and three years. That kind of funding affects organizations’ operations, particularly the advocacy work that we do, which sometimes requires a spontaneous response and staff retention.
Regina, the work you all do at ACFODE is very challenging. What keeps you focused, energized, and hopeful?
Regina: True, the work I do is very challenging; however, what keeps me focused, energized, and hopeful is the passion I have for women, girls’ rights, and gender equality. I also have a support mechanism among colleagues and friends. We chat, laugh, and support each other. The team I lead at ACFODE is committed and does their work professionally, and this minimizes work-related stress. I have a board that listens and provides the support required.
I also take time off to reflect and re-energize. I love reading and traveling; these two things refresh and keep me focused. What keeps me hopeful is the contribution we make in the lives of the women, girls, boys, and men we work with, the enthusiasm they have when sharing their stories, and the commitment they make to support themselves and others to lead better lives.
Thank you so much for your time today, Regina. We appreciate you and the work you are doing at ACFODE. As we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts or inspirational words for those who are trying to create social change?
Regina: Social change work is challenging but interesting. It requires multi-pronged approaches, creation of mutual partnerships and solidarity. Social change requires organizing, mobilizing, and harnessing each other’s strength to guard against burnout and backlash.
When empowered with the right information and provided with safe spaces to discuss and discover their inner power, women and girls are capable of challenging negative social and gender norms, of making the right choices, and of becoming change agents.
About Regina Bafaki:
Regina Bafaki is the Executive Director of Action for Development (ACFODE), a national women’s rights organization in Uganda, whose vision is “A just society where gender equality is a reality” and whose mission is “To empower women, girls, and influence legislation and policies of gender equality in Uganda.”
Regina is a feminist and gender activist with 20 years’ experience. She has initiated and contributed to the development of organizations and networks in Uganda with the purpose of ensuring that their programs and services are gender responsive. Regina is passionate about youth development and has initiated and supported such initiatives as “Suati Ya Sasa,” Inter-university debates, and the formation of youth-focused organizations, such as Solidarity for Youth Empowerment (SOFOYE).
Regina has coordinated, contributed to, and overseen the development of programs on gender-transformative approaches, leadership, governance, gender-based violence (GBV) prevention, and economic empowerment. She is an editor of ACFODE’s women and gender equality advocacy publication, Arise Magazine. She also founded and has served on several boards in Uganda. These include Action Aid International – Uganda, Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), the Centre for Domestic Violence, and the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU). She currently chairs Kigezi Women in Development (KWID) and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Women’s Situation Room, an initiative that promotes peaceful elections in Uganda.
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