In June, Melissa Jo (MJ) Townsend (2L) joined Professor Brigham Daniels on a trip to Uganda to work closely with several villages surrounding Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bwindi is a protected cultural area that is inhabited by approximately 350 endangered mountain gorillas. The park was also once home to multiple villages that relied on the area’s natural resources.
These villages were relocated and its residents were restricted from entering the reserve when it became a national park in 1991. Although a revenue-sharing program was established to support the relocated villages, promised funding hasn’t been making its way to them, which has led to infrastructure decline and village residents illegally entering the park, desperate for life-sustaining resources.
For this reason, Professor Daniels began working closely with park officials and helped establish the Bwindi Information Network. The network sends information blasts through text and voicemail to alert village residents of community and government meetings. This summer, Daniels employed Townsend’s help in an effort to better reach women within the villages and encourage their involvement in these meetings.
Along with two other students and a translator, Townsend entered villages to speak with the women and determine why they were hesitant to participate in government negotiations. She discovered that the women felt like they had little to contribute because they were uneducated and couldn’t read. Existing gender inequality further discouraged women’s participation.
Despite substantial obstacles, the women Townsend interviewed offered important insights as to how all voices could be included in future village and government conversations.
Many spoke to the importance of uniting women through social groups. The groups could be varied in nature, but would offer a safe environment where women could talk and learn more about their rights and larger roles within the villages.
Developments like this will be key stepping stones for increased women’s involvement and improved village life going forward.
“The trip was eye-opening, humbling, strengthening, and confidence-boosting in more ways than one,” Townsend said. “I feel grateful to be an American and for my education and opportunities, especially as a woman.”
Collected stories and insights from the village women will continue to be reviewed and analyzed along with additional data that will be collected next summer when Daniels returns to Uganda to test solutions informed by Townsend’s research.
As she reflected on her experiences from the trip, Townsend expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work with Professor Daniels. “BYU Law’s professors do not just casually engage in their projects, their classes, and their community,” Townsend explained. “They jump all in and lift wherever they stand in whatever capacity they serve. They and those before them are the giants on whose shoulders we stand.”