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Women lack voice, even in parliament

By Dicta Asiimwe

Can getting more directly elected women change trend?

On February, 2006, the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) led other women NGOs to the launch of the Women’s Manifesto 2006 at Hotel Africana in Kampala.

The Women’s manifesto was designed to help women get a common understanding of issues that they wanted parliament and the government to address. Developed against the backdrop of the equal opportunities commission stated in article 32(2) of the Uganda Constitution 1995, the manifesto was also meant to get more women interested in taking up leadership positions in politics, especially Parliament.

Among the important women issues targeted was the eradication of poverty and economically empowering women. The government was to deliberately promote their access to and control of land, and other productive assets.

The clause on co-ownership of land by spouses should be incorporated in the Land Act of 1998, their manifesto said.

On November 25, 2009, the Land Act was amended and the women mostly voted according to their party positions. Many didnt think to fight to include an amendment that affects the women. This important part of the women agenda is not even included in the proposed Land Policy that is currently being drafted.

Such disinterest in issues that affect women shows that some NGOs women leaders seem to have started taking everything for granted and appearing more willing to blame everyone else for the failure of the women movement but themselves.

International Womens Day March 8 is usually a good time to examine whether affirmative action and the introduction of women MPs has helped women.

This question is even more pertinent because of this years Womens Day theme: Consolidating equal opportunities for women; a path for prosperity for all.

What opportunities are to be consolidated? Are the opportunities equal for all women?

Women fail?

At a debate with media personalities, a number of women MPs said the media was ignoring them. Media managers reminded them that coverage is only given when something worthy warrants it. The journalists said women leaders had failed on this test.

Two successive reports by the African Leadership Institute have said directly elected constituency MPs perform better than the MPs elected on the affirmative action ticket. The institute uses a scorecard to measure the performance of MPs based on constituency activity, committee performance and plenary performance.  The latest AFLI report says the affirmative action women performed poorly on nearly every measure.

Experts say that the numbers as well as quality of women representatives is important because that is the only way the issues that affect women can be articulated.

However,  affirmative action has not encouraged women to compete with men but has allowed them to stay in their own cocoon.

In the 6th Parliament there were a total of 70 female MPs, including  56 women representatives (17 districts were created in the course of the 6th parliament) 9 constituency MPs, two disabled representatives, ex-officio, one Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) representative and one youth female representative. In the seventh parliament the number of directly elected female MPs increased to 14 and increased the total number of female MPs to 77 women in parliament.

In the 8th parliament, there was only a change in names of the constituency representatives with the number remaining at 14. The total number of women, however, saw a drastic increase making the total 102. Â

Although it had fewer women MPS, the 6th Parliament had some of the most vocal women like Winnie Byanyima, Speciosa Kazibwe, Miria Matembe, Salaam Musumba, Cecilia Ogwal.  Some of these were direct constituency MPs.

But Jane Alisemera Babiha  (Bundibugyo Woman MP) who is the chairperson of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association says the perception that the role of women MPs is undermined is based on the wrong view that women MPs are less effective today because they are less vocal.

Even if women MPs did not speak English they would still act as role models for the women in their constituencies as well as vote the pro-women laws, she says.

“We have had vocal women before, but did they pass any laws. It is us who are many but less vocal that have passed these laws.”

Target direct seats

She says UWOPA is looking at increasing the number of women MPs even further by encouraging those on women seats to go for the open parliamentary seats.  In the last elections in 2006, only 33 women stood on open parliamentary seats resulting into 14 women on these seats in parliament.

That will not be easy.  According to several MPs that The independent spoke to, most political parties consider women to be weak candidates and discourage them from standing because they do not want to lose the seats to their opponents. It was also noted that more women would stand for direct parliamentary seats if they faced less harassment from the men against whom they would stand. Harassment and intimidation are also reason most women MPs say they do not speak up as much during parliamentary debates.

MP Nabila Sempala (FDC Woman MP Kampala district) says parties are not willing to empower women but have sections for women so that they can get votes since women are the biggest part of the population. She added that parties want to keep them in their own section to make sure they don’t take the big party positions.

As a result of all these problems, affirmative action has now become the only way in which women can participate in politics.

This trend has left the number of women in constituency seats almost constant. Women numbers in parliament have only increased because their affirmative action slots have increased as a result of the increase in districts. Women now constitute 32% of parliament.

 This means that if the government changed policy to reduce public spending on administration by reducing MPs, it would mean a drastic reduction in the number of women MPs.

Affirmative action useless?

But Salamu Musumba, a former MP for Bugabula South constituency in Iganga district, says while the number of women MPs had increased to 102 most of them were just a statistic and not a making any contribution to the cause of the everyday Ugandan woman and that affirmative in its current form could only suit the incumbent women MPs who had the resources and structures to mobilise the very big constituencies.

Musumba, who is Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) vice president, says affirmative action has failed to move women into the many available leadership places.

She says it has undermined the respect women parliamentarians are accorded and increased the “deputising syndrome” – where women are relegated to being deputies/assistants of men in political offices. It is used by most political parties to show that they involve women in their decision making processes.

Rebecca Kadaga is the Deputy Speaker of Parliament. She has enjoyed the fruits of affirmative action since it was introduce in 1995 as Women MP for Kamuli district and has no problem with it. She says it allows the women to contribute equally the same way the MPs on the open parliamentary seats participate.

The parliamentary records do not support Kadaga’s view.

Under Kadaga’s watch, women asked government to pass laws like the Domestic Relations Bill, the Sexual Offences Bill, the bill against female genital mutilation (FMG) and the Domestic Violence Bill. While the last two laws have been passed, FMG was sponsored by a man but with education to the affected populations mostly done by the women. The Domestic Violence Act is awaiting presidential assent but over 80 days since it was passed it hasn’t been sent to the president.

The failure to send the Domestic Violence Act might show lack of commitment to things that affect women on the part of government. It  also shows laxity by the female MPs who worked hard at making sure the bill was passed but currently either do not know or do not care where it is. To critics, such inaction shows that while the number of women in leadership positions has increased, the government’s responsiveness to issues that affect the livelihood of the everyday woman hasn’t changed even with the affirmative action.

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