Episode notes: Sugra Visram and the start of family planning in Uganda

The oldest family planning group in Uganda is Reproductive Health Uganda — RHU. It was formerly known as Family Planning Association of Uganda which started operations, pre-independence, in 1957.

In the beginning, the Family Planning Association of Uganda as it was known then did not operate as an organisation. It was, as was usual in Uganda, a lot of organising, mostly done by women and by medical professionals who volunteered for the cause.

Interestingly, a lot of people we talked to before doing this episode said that family planning, at the beginning, was the premise of Indian families.

It is difficult to ascertain the truth as there is little recorded information that we could access but it appears the Indian connection comes from Sugra Visram. She is, it appears, the mother of family planning in Uganda.

Sugra Visram was born Sugra Jamal at Nsambya Hospital on 15 July 1923. She studied at old Kampala Senior Secondary School. Her mother (Kawkab Aha Mirza) had also been born in Kampala, but her father had emigrated from Pakistan at the age of twelve. Her father was involved in a cotton and timber business and her mother did social work and raised fourteen children — seven girls and seven boys.

They were Muslim and Muslims in Uganda, at the time, did not support the education of girls — this was the 1920s — but the Jamals encouraged their daughter to study and to participate in extracurricular activities. She actually met Haiderali Visram at drama class and two years after leaving school in 1941, she married him. Haiderali was the grandson of the much famed Allidina Visram.

The Visram’s were Ismailis so Sugra’s entire family converted to facilitate the marriage. They were from a different branch, they were Ithnasheri. The transition was said to take two years to complete.

After her marriage, she joined her husband’s work but in the afternoons, she ran a nursery school. Her husband bought her a dress shop and asked her to manage it. And so she did. In the shop — it was called the Nouveau Marche — she created office space and started a driving school for women. She had got a driving licence when she was a bride, and was the first Asian woman to acquire one.

Sugra was very involved in the women’s movement in Uganda. There is an iconic black-and-white picture in history of women holding up their hand, in front of what looks like the Parliament. They are wearing gomesis and look like they are indicating one, which might be a party sign. In the center is a beautiful Indian woman, dressed similarly in a gomesi. That was Sugra.

The Baganda adopted her, and named her Namubiru. She spoke fluent Luganda and was active in Kabaka Yekka.

In an interview, she gave at 80, she said, of her activism, “my initial goal was to help the mothers and children of Uganda to get a good education, obtain better living conditions and have the economic ability to provide a healthy diet.” Her first step, she said, was to help “with school fees and family planning.”

She defined “family planning” as “spacing of children according to the health of the mothers and the financial status of the family.”

In that interview, which was published by Awaaz magazine, she said “I was given encouragement and assistance not only by women but by men as well, many of whom were in high government offices.”

Sugra Visram entered politics in 1962, when she was elected to the Lukiiko in February 1962. She was one of three — the other two were Florence Lubega and Eseza Makumbi. After the general elections of April 1962, Sugra and Lubega were nominated to the National Assembly as representatives of Buganda and were the only women to hold seats in parliament at the time. In January 1996, she told Aili Mari Tripp, “when I was campaigning with Ugandan women, nobody ever said that I was an Asian. Everyone said “she is our Muganda woman. She is Ugandan and she is part and parcel of us.” I was very proud of that.”

She walked out of parliament in 1966 — the only woman member to do so — when Milton Obote changed the constitution to a one-party state, thereby forcing all members of the parliament to join his party Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC). During a Parliamentary session when all members of parliament were to swear allegiance to the new constitution, Sugra Visram walked out amidst cheers. She, a member of Kabaka Yekka, had opted to leave. Decades later, she would say of the experience “the greatest difficulty I had to overcome was to pick myself up and continue working for the good of the country after I walked out of the parliament on a matter of principle (…) It goes without saying that it was a horribly frightening experience with potentially disastrous consequences, but I had to be true to my convictions.”

She joined or set-up important spaces for women to participate in. She was the Chairperson of the Women’s Wing of Kabaka Yekka, the Vice Chair of Uganda Council for Women which she joined in 1944; Vice Chair of Muslim Women’s Association that was founded in 1945; a founder member and treasurer of Young Women’s Christian Association. After they had founded YWCA, they discovered that they couldn’t have Sugra Visram on the Executive Committee because the association had a policy that didn’t allow non-Christians to join. But because she had been so active in starting it, they got special permission. She socialised often with Christian women, telling research Aili Mari Tripp in 1996 that her and her husband attended Christmas dances, and danced with Ugandans. At the time, it would have been scandalous for her, an Asian woman, to dance with the Ugandan men and her husband with the Ugandan women. But, she says, they “broke the ice.”

All through her work, she said her goal was “to empower women to the point where they would have equal opportunities with the men” in all fields. But also at the heart of that, she pushed for the interaction of races socially and economically.

Sugra Visram left Uganda at the age of 49, when Idi Amin expelled Asians. With the one suitcase allowed them each, she boarded a flight to London. She returned to Uganda in 1993 to see friends, family and the home she missed. But London was her new base. She remained plugged in and active, at one point advising President Museveni on investments and was heavily involved in UWESO — Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans.

She died at 89 in October 2012, in London.

Our references:

“Uganda’s Reluctant Hero Sugra Visram” Awaaz Magazine. November, 2011. http://awaazmagazine.com/previous/index.php/component/k2/item/275-ugandas-reluctant-hero-sugra-visram

Tripp, Aili Mari. Women and Politics in Uganda. Madison:University of Wisconsin Press. 2000.

Walji, Parveen. “The Asians: A Minority in Transition” Seminar Paper № 40. Department of Sociology. June, 1980.