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Human Rights in Uganda

Matthew VanWormer: Rights of the Batwa Tribe

Matt VanWormer
Matthew VanWormer, right, meets with Francis Sembagare (left), chairman of the Birara Batwa Community, and two Batwa elders.

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Contact: Rob Seal

In 1991 the Ugandan government forced many members of the Batwa tribe to leave their ancestral forest homes, separating them from their livelihoods and traditional cultural sites.

Since then, the tribe has been squatting on their neighbors’ territory, and has been denied many of the rights afforded under the African Charter on Human Rights, according to third-year law student Matthew VanWormer, who studied the Batwa’s plight during his time in Uganda.

“The government made no efforts to resettle the Batwa, who at that point were around 3,000 to 4,000 in number,” VanWormer said. “And no compensation was given to the Batwa after they were evicted.”

The tribe, a subset of the Pygmy group, is a small minority in Uganda that historically lived off the forest with little outside contact and trade. But as the Ugandan population expanded, it put more pressure on the Batwa.

“They became more and more compressed into isolated areas as the dominant cultures cleared more land and the land became used for agriculture,” VanWormer said. 

When the government forcibly evicted the tribe from two national parks and a forest reserve — ostensibly to comply with international gorilla preservation measures — the tribe was denied access to the forest.

Now they are often denied basic rights such as the right to education, political representation, and political self-determination, VanWormer said.

“As far as education, the Batwa rank by far the lowest of the country,” he said. “There are only four members of the entire tribe who have made it into secondary school.”

The first will graduate this year. But most children in the tribe don’t make it past the first level of primary school because they need to work so they can eat, he said.

“It really questions the notion of universal primary education, which Uganda promotes as a right of all of its citizens,” VanWormer said.