Empowered Women

Thursday, March 23, 2023

The soft voice of the public radio host replaced the fading Ella Fitzgerald song as I drove up to the Silver Spring metro station. She announced that it was International Women’s Day. I smiled at the coincidence, as I was about to meet two Ugandan women, civil society leaders, on a recent, cold, overcast spring day. Who knew what a bright morning laid ahead.

Eunice Nabakwa holds the title of Principal Land Officer at the Ugandan government’s Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development. We had met earlier around our common interest in good governance and property rights, and she, my wife, and I had quickly become friends.

strong women

Eunice, finishing her Georgetown University Masters, actively contributes to the good work of Cadasta Foundation and New Markets Lab, both women-led non-profits. Before returning to Uganda to continue her government career, Eunice is exploring ways to train Ugandan women and spread legal knowledge and capacity.

She’d invited her friend, Mwanga Mastullah Ashah, an equally impressive young Ugandan lawyer and Georgetown University Masters candidate, to join our walk. Ashah founded and leads the Islamic Women’s Initiative for Justice, Law and Peace (IWILAP).

As the website makes clear, Ashah and colleagues have an enormously challenging and often dangerous environment in which to operate. The odds seem stacked against IWILAP as they take on issues of sexual violence, discrimination, and lack of access to basic legal aid for thousands of women. Yet their modest but incremental successes mount, bringing hope to many of Uganda’s most vulnerable citizens. Ashah’s scholarship and work in D.C., just like Eunice’s over the last two years, fortify these women with knowledge and experience. Eunice and I had the shared international law luminary Professor Edith Brown Weiss as a favorite teacher, although almost 40 years apart (Gads!).

We drove up to the Rachel Carson Nature trail that follows the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River to let out my dogs and begin our hike. Rachel Carson lived here in the watershed 60 years ago when writing her seminal Silent Spring, launching the modern environmental movement.

Eunice and Ashah delighted in our walk, making me smile and laugh throughout our trek. We scrambled up dirt paths overlooking the river, tried climbing small birch trees, imitated bird calls, and looked for the first wild daffodils and tulips in the bogs and vales. We hid behind trees, trying to scare each other (ok, only I did), and generally played like kids having a ton of fun in the great outdoors.

Almost three hours later, we emerged from the woods, tired but exhilarated, having found an unexpected comradeship. Both Eunice and Ashah declared that with precious few opportunities to get outside, relax, and goof around, they had the most fun since coming to D.C.!

Feeling their exuberance and sharing their spontaneous sense of regenerating, positive energy made this year’s International Women’s Day special. I am grateful to Georgetown University and others for supporting Eunice, Ashah, and other emerging leaders. I hope you will join me in following the careers and much needed environmental and human rights contributions of both of these women warriors-for-good in the years ahead.