In Uganda and many postcolonial African countries, women’s political leadership has come a long way. At Independence while the continent celebrated the great milestones from Ghana to Kenya, Uganda to Malawi, women were quietly bracing themselves for the second independence- the struggle for a woman’s space in political life of postcolonial Africa.
Most independence struggles always highlighted men at the forefront for long at the expense of women’s contributions. Women’s achievements were not as revered as those of the men who led militaristic struggles.
Many decades later, Africa now has two female heads of state and many other women occupy key decision-making positions. Even with these achievements, many analysts believe the women’s involvement in post-colonial state governance has been painfully slow.
This week, Isis-WICCE organized a high level meeting of women from African countries discussing women’s political leadership on the continent.
The women leaders included ministers, Members of Parliament and academicians from South Sudan, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Uganda.
Speaker after speaker these women leaders raised the glaring challenges faced by women in political leadership and high on the list was militarism and the sexualized nature of political spaces in their countries.
In past Uganda has had a female vice president and currently has the first ever-female speaker Ms Rebecca Kadaga presiding over parliament. Many may be quick to highlight this as a great success but the fact that it came 50 years after independence speaks volumes of the struggle of women to make it in the political arena.
Over last 10 years the number of women in Uganda’s parliament and other key decision making spaces has increased. During the 7th parliament 2001-2006, women held 56 seats. The 8th parliament had 99 women, 79 of these were district women representatives (31%.) In the current 9th parliament out of 375 members, 129 are women (34.4%), which represented a 3.4% increase from 8th parliament. This increase has a lot to do with increase in number of districts too.
In South Sudan women have only 25% according to the constitution in a country that has more than 60% women. South Sudan women leaders said that of 18 ministers that President Salva Kiir recently announced only four are women and another four are deputies out of 10.
In Zimbabwe am told for the first time the opposition in parliament will have more women MPs than men from the recently concluded elections.
Back in Uganda
A report by Isis-WICCE launched the meeting indicated that despite changes in attitudes in accepting women political leadership, in Uganda fewer women vie for directly elected seats which are traditionally seen as men’s tuff.
In 2011 elections there were 1193 men in the parliamentary seat contest and 61 women. Out of that 222 men won while only 11 women. In 2006 there had been only 28 women.
Uganda’s current cabinet has only 28% women representation- most of whom are junior ministers. Even for women in powerful ministries like energy, finance and trade the most power lies elsewhere.
The research focused on national level leadership and conditions under which women in politics in Uganda face. It highlighted reasons why despite a rise in women’s participation in national politics many are yet to make big impact.
The current political system has made it almost impossible for women to make decisions that make a big difference. The challenges to women in political leadership are enormous because of the bigger context of Uganda’s patriarchal and militarized political system.
President Yoweri Museveni has led Uganda since 1986 after he took over power forcefully. Although his government has women in some key positions,decisions are largely made by the president and a small group of his bushwar colleagues. It’s a norm to hear a government official telling citizens that he/she has orders from above.
Although women in the research highlighted commercialization of politics and tokenism, it was largely reported that women’s effective decision making is mainly constrained because of militarism, the nature of multiparty system and sexualized political space.
Militarism is not just about war! No, there’s no more war in Uganda but the ideology remains. Ursula Franklin defines militarism as a threat system which stripped of all its extraneous verbage simply says “Do what I tell you – or else.”
Like Colleen Burke said the military ideology creates an enemy out of difference and then uses the existence of the enemy to justify continued militarism. All these scholars’ statements highlight the current political system in Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni.
Many MPs interviewed during this research expressed fear – including male MPs.
One male MP told researchers that:
“The institutions of NRA/NRM were ceded to the state after the bush war (after taking over power in 1986)…but when they were ceded to the state, the umbilical code was never cut. As a result there’s no NRM in reality.”
The research indicates that President Museveni’s political leadership has learnt how to run a military, single party government in a multiparty setting.
“Now people fear to stand as opposition MPs for fear of repression. In essence militarism has made Uganda have a constitution without constitutionalism,” One MPs explained.
Even those who make it to the NRM ruling party, the situation is tougher.
“Most women MPs are in the ruling party. In many cases this would be something to celebrate but this is the reverse where a party is not operating as a party but militarism embedded in it,” said Prof. Josephine Ahikire, Associate Professor in Department of Women and Gender Studies, Makerere University. “The parties are acting like cults of individuals in Uganda so you cannot be able to forge a front as women leaders at national level.”
Prof. Ahikire also cites that in opposition parties there’s still patriarchy.
The creation of an enemy based on mere difference and overly personalized party agendas have made it extremely difficult for women to make a difference in Uganda politics despite their mass numbers in Museveni’s NRM party.
Over the last years we have seen situations where the speaker of parliament Rebecca Kadaga has been pushed to the wall by NRM stalwarts who would like her to tow the party line, which isn’t befitting of a speaker. The NRM decision makers who are mostly male have made themselves unquestionable on matters of national importance even within the party.
Besides the militarism, women leaders in Uganda also face sexual pacification.
Opposition MP Winfred Kiiza said:
“One of the contestants called upon the people of Kasese to save my marriage because if I were to go to parliament I would find other men and leave my husband.”
I know of a parliamentarian from northern Uganda who went to the district to speak about the marriage and divorce bill that was put back on the shelves. While there he told constituents not to listen to district woman MP because she was a prostitute.
This level of sexualized politics comes in many forms also the media plays a role in sexual pacification of women leaders. Many have been called ‘offlayers’, best legs’, ‘best butt’s and other comments meant to demean women in leadership.
The challenges of working in a sexualized political space were summed by Zimbabwean Member of Parliament Jessie F. Majome form Harare West.
“I hope to live to day when a woman’s politics is not judged by which man’s bed she gets into.”
While we acknowledge the advances Uganda and many other African nations have made in attaining equality in political participation, women in political leadership still face a tall order in going beyond their physical presence on the political scene.