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Same gender, different gains

By Feliciah Kanyesigye

New report assesses impact of affirmative action for women

Daphine , a fifth year medical student at Gulu University cannot stop praising `affirmative action’ which is code for the extra 1.5 points that girls seeking public university admission get.

Daphine  scored 21 points in the pre-university entry exam, the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) and failed to get admission to her first choice, Makerere University. She also could not have made it to her current university if it the 1.5 extra points for females had not been factored in.

As the only girl in a family with four boys, Daphine does not want to imagine what decision her parents might have made if they had to choose between paying for her university education and that of the boys. She knows that boys often get first priority.  Soon to graduate and attain her dream of specialising in treating childhood diseases, she feels privileged in a country where very few females excel in science courses.

The 1.5 points is a form of affirmative action that the government introduced in 1990 to compensate for past marginalisation of women in the education sector. It was hoped to increase female enrolment in public universities.

Until then, girls who had to compete on equal terms with men for limited public university positions often found themselves locked out. Most could not make the mark because of hurdles in an education system that has traditionally favoured boys.

For instance, when Makerere Univesity started in 1922, it admitted only men until 1945 when the first six women were admitted.  When Andrew Luba, a fourth year Law Student at Uganda Christian University in Mukono looks at girls like Daphine, he concludes that the 1.5 scheme has been effective in erasing the gender gap in admission and needs to be revised.

“Girls have come up to the desired level, close to outnumbering us so the 1.5 should be scrapped,” he says.

Another male student, Ernest Twesigye who studies business at Mukono agrees.

“Women have been well represented; for instance, former vice president, Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, current Parliament Speaker Rebbecca Kadaga among others.”

He says affirmative action for girls has outlived its purpose since women today are taking on the jobs once regarded as the preserve of men. He mentions work on commuter public transport and construction sites. Their views affirm a growing demand for the 1.5 extra marks to be scrapped.

But Miria Matembe, a former minister of Ethics and Integrity, warns against using isolated or single women figures like the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga to argue that affirmative action for women should be scrapped. “Our target is mass women not a single individual, how many men have been speakers before?” she asks.

Matembe understands the value of affirmative action since she was among the first crop of women who entered parliament when special seats were created for women, the so-called District Woman MP.

She says talk of scrapping the 1.5 extra points for girls is like jumping off before the end of the tunnel.   A member of the pro-women development NGO, Action for Development (ACFODE) that spearheaded the 1.5 scheme, Matembe says the scheme was never intended to be permanent. She warns, however, that before it is scrapped, certain questions must be considered.

“If women can do without it, then it can be removed since the 1.5 affirmative action is a temporary measure.  “(But) there is structural and legal discrimination going on, has it been overcome?”

The vocal woman activist says there is still intake discrimination when it comes to university government sponsorship.

“There are seven male halls of residence and about two and a half female halls at Makerere University. This means few girls are admitted since female halls are few,” she says.  A report by Makerere University’s Gender Mainstreaming Department (GMD) that evaluates the effectiveness of the 1.5 extra points appears to back the continuation of the 1.5 scheme.

The research carried out between 2008 and 2010 shows a marked rise in the number of female students gaining entry to Makerere University and other public universities like Kyambogo, Mbarara and Gulu.  “The rate of female admission has risen from 20% to about 44% in the recent past,” says John Osuna, the Administrative Assistant of GMD at Makerere University.

Sciences are, however, still poorly represented.  The report notes: “The minimum target of at least 35% female enrolment has not been achieved. To arrive to at least 30% enrolment in some science disciplines, female would need over 10 extra points. Therefore, more initiatives are needed to boost girls’ enrolment and performance in sciences.”

Then there are girls like Brenda Ahereza who feel even with the 1.5 scheme, they are still locked out.  Ahereza, who is pursuing a diploma in catering at YMCA, a vocational training institute in Kampala, is sad that despite her best efforts, the 1.5 did not help her enter university.

“My dream was to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at a recognised university but dreams were shattered when I was not shortlisted,” she says.

Ahereza was in a poor school in the rural countryside where many girls are to be found. Unfortunately, according to the GMD report, most of these have not benefited from the 1.5 extra marks.

The report notes that schools from remote and disadvantaged areas did not adequately benefit from the scheme because its key consideration is academic merit.

“The main shortcoming of this scheme was not to take the issue of equity into consideration,”  the report notes,  “The scheme assumed that all females are homogeneous, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds and the nature of their schooling.”

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