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Women no longer at ease

By Joan Akello and Ian Katusiime

Is the reduced gender activism today really a bad thing?

Winnie Byanyima. Miria Matembe. Joy Kwesiga. Speciosa Kazibwe. Joyce Mpanga. Betty Bigombe. Victoria Sekitoleko. Sylvia Tamale. Ruth Mukama. Maxine Ankrah. Rose Mbowa. Janat Mukwaya. Gladys Kalema. Rebecca Kadaga. Karooro Okurut. There was a time in the 1990s when women in Uganda were powerful. The consensus today is that the women’s movement in slumber, if not dead.

Dr Miria Matembe, the renowned activist and founder of the women’s development NGO, Action for Development (ACFODE), has an interesting explanation for it.


“ Women  were  most  vibrant  between  1986-2000  and  the  movement  reached  its  peak  after  the  promulgation  of  the  new  constitution  in  1995, ” she told The Independent in a recent interview.

“The time  was  ripe  for  women  participation  because  women  prefer  to  participate  in  peaceful  times,” she added.

Matembe says the insecurity, absence of  peace  and  democracy  that  have  characterised  Uganda since  have, in her opinion,  silenced  women. Their place has been taken up by the militancy of women like Ingrid Turinawe, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) activist who involve themselves in fierce face-offs with the police.

The  former  Ethics  Minister  also  adds  that  the  politics  of  patronage  has  “captured  and  co-opted  women  into  state  structures  from  where  they  have  lost  their  voice”.

Betty Iyamuremye is the type of co-opted woman Matembe could be describing. She is the Advocacy and Communications Officer   Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA), a powerful position on the 135-member body but she is rarely seen or heard from.

In the same league as Iyamulemye are women like Regina Bafaki, Solome Kimbugwe, Maria Nasali, Rita Aciro Lakor, Patricia Munaabi Babiiha, Sheila Kawamara-Mishambi, and others. These women hold the top position in Uganda’s most powerful women’s movement bodies including FIDA-Uganda, Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), Action for Development (ACFODE) and Forum for Women in Development (FOWODE).

Most of these organisations sprung up during or soon after the 1995 Constitution making process and their leader were powerful activists. Most of their founders were delegates to the Constituent Assembly (CA) and joined its women’s caucus. Today’s leaders are not weak, merely different, according to Iyamulemye.

She says female MPs, for example, might not be involved in gender activism today but they are very strong on advocacy. She names Beatrice Anywar, the Kitgum District Woman MP, who has earned the nickname “Mama Mabira” for her fight to save the Mabira tropical forest from being cut down by sugar plantation barons and their sponsors who include President Yoweri Museveni.

Iyamulemye says even the many women still involved in activism should not be judged by how often they appear on TV.

“There  are  women  who  do  not  interface  with  media  but  they  are  vibrant,” she says.

For example, she says, there  are  more  women  now  as  chairpersons  and  vice chairpersons  heading  parliamentary  committees.

In  the  Eighth parliament, there  were  seven  women cabinet  ministers  and  seven  women state  ministers; only  three  women  were  heading  standing  committees. In  the  current  parliament, there  are  nine  women  out  of  the  29  cabinet  ministers  and  among  the  47  state ministers  15  are  women.

Today, there   are   134   women   in   the   Ninth   parliament. Among  the  375  directly  elected  MPs, 226  are  men  and  only 12 or 5%  are  women. The other 112 women are affirmative action beneficiaries of the District Woman seat, while one is a representative for Persons with Disabilities and two represent workers. Two women represent the army out of the ten. At the peak of their activism, the women said they were targeting 50% representation.

For Gerald Karuhanga, the Youth MP (Western), the problem today is the lack of unity among the women.

“Now  things  are  totally  different   because  the  environment  is  risky   and  they  still have  other   responsibilities  like  looking  after  their  children,” he says.

Karuhanga says today’s woman is multi-tasking as a wife, mother, career woman, manager of a side business. Some women  who  are  ministers  and  double  as  MPs  have  marital  and  motherly  roles. This  creates  a  strain  on   their  lives  and  in  a way  ‘stifles’  their  would  be  activism.

Divisive politics

In  the  1990s the Women  Movement  scene  was  dominated  by  two   indomitable  women, Winnie  Byanyima, who was recently named  Executive  Director  of  Oxfam  International  and  Miria  Matembe, the  Director  of  Centre  for  Women  in  Governance.

These two often shook  the  foundations  of  society  with  their  assertiveness  and  were  unapologetic  for  their  aggressiveness.

It  appears   the  present  day  versions  of  the  two  are  absent  which  has  caused  an   apparent  void  in  empowerment  circles.

Kampaire   Bahana, a programme officer at Forum   for   Women in Democracy (FOWODE) says it all has to do with the times. She  says the `no-party’ NRM Movement of the period, which she calls a “one  party  system” back  then  benefited  from   promoting  women  because  of  its emphasis on national  unity.

“The divisive   politics of today were not yet around then,” she says.

She  also  cites  the  narrowing  space  of  civil  society  and says the proposed Public  Order  Management  Bill, which seeks to regulate among other things, the management of public assemblies,  will worsen the situation.

Bahana also points at the reduced funding for the gender activism agenda.

“The  anti-homosexuality  Bill  has left  some  people  in  a  dilemma, some  organisations   are  funded  by  western  donors  so  they   are  limited,” she says.

Peter  Fuuna, a  lecturer  at  the Makerere  School  of  Women  and  Gender  Studies  prefers a more nuanced interpretation of the apparent decline of women voices in public spaces. He says the woman empowerment movement in Uganda needs to be looked at in three phases.

He says: “The  first  phase  was  about  women advocacy, the second was about making  the career  woman  and  the last process was beyond modernising  of a  woman  in  terms  of  performance”.

Issue-driven agenda

Fuuna says the  first  two  phases  were  about   modernising  the  woman and the issues  raised  in  the  Matembe  and Byanyima era  were  not  really  affecting  women.

“The  Matembe  era  was  about  making  women  aware  yet  those  were  not  the  real  issues  affecting  women. The  real  issues  included  reducing  high  maternal  and  infant  mortality  rate,” he says.  Those are the issues the women leaders of today, including those in top political position like Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga and ministers Christine Ondoa and Sarah Kataike of Health, Irene Muloni of Energy, and Maria Mutagamba of Tourism are grappling with.

Other powerful women include Maria Kiwanuka, minister of Finance, Amelia Kyambadde   of Trade and Industry, Justice Irene Mulyagonja, who is Inspector General of Government and Jennifer Musisi, the Executive Director of Kampala  Capital  City  Authority. Official records also show that there are more Women-oriented NGOs today than in the 1990s.

As the patron of UWOPA, the powerful Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga says, for example, that plans are underway to amend the national Budget Act to ensure that all budgets presented before parliament are accompanied by the Gender Equity Certificate.

“Women’s presence in parliaments around the world is a reality that is impacting on the social, political and economic fabric of nations and of the world,” she says in a UWOPA report, and adds that the rules  of  procedure  were amended  to  provide  for  a  minimum  of  40%  of  all  leadership  positions  being  reserved  for  women.

But Claire Devlin and Robert Eglie, researchers of The Effect of Increased Women Representation in   Parliament: The case of Rwanda blame such affirmative action-driven quota systems that reserves parliamentary seats for women for their “ weaker than expected’’ impact. Their studies are based especially in Mozambique and Rwanda.

“The   system is usually controlled by political parties and this often means they must   toe the party line, even at the expense of promoting gender centred legislative reforms.”

Matembe agrees. She says in Uganda women’s vibrancy and performance cannot be linked to the powerful positions some of them hold.

“Are women healthier with three women ministers in the Health Ministry? Or is there co-ownership of land since we now have a woman Lands minister?” she asks.

The choice appears to be between the current era where women appear more positioned to make important decisions and the 1990s era where they appeared more aggressive in public debates but, in reality, held less power and influence.

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