The United Women’s Organisation (UWO) was launched in April 1981 with 400 delegates from the Western Cape attending. Some of the women who pioneered the organisation had been active in the ANC Women’s League in 1950s. For instance, Dorothy Zihlangu, Mildred Lesia and Dora Tamana were members of the ANC. Tamana who was aged 80 at the time and confined to a wheel chair opened the conference urging all women to unite. UWO also crossed the racial divide as it propagated non racialism and accepted white people amongst its ranks. For instance, Amy Thornton a white woman who a member of the Congress of Democrats (COD) who was banned for her political activities between 1959 and 1973 was invited to join UWO by Oscar Mphetha.

The organisation was formed as response to increasing state repression and aimed to unite all women, eradicate social, economic and political discrimination of women. UWO had one structure with branches in various parts. Each branch was mandated to work on programme of action that was tailored to meet the needs and interests of women in those areas. UWO initiated the bus boycotts in 1984 and the bread boycott in 1985. After joining the UDF, women leaders such as Cherly Carolus served in the top leadership. On 22 March 1986 UWO was amalgamated with the township based Women’s Front. In other provinces such as Natal the Natal Women’s Organisation (NOW) and in Transvaal the Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW) sprang up.
* Full image caption: "Police arrest UWO members, Cape Town, 1985. Leaders of the United Women's Organisation (UWO) are turned back from parliament and arrested during a march to protest against the massacre in which police killed twenty-two people in the Eastern Cape township of Langa. Eyewitnesses maintained that the police shot innocent people, part of a funeral procession, without provocation."

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