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.
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”.
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.