If today’s observance of the International Women’s Day was an annual business performance audit meeting, dividends-for-shareholders would likely be a combustible agendum polarising stakeholders.
And it is not theory. Uganda’s report card on women emancipation has staggered scores. Perceptions about empowerment, enshrined in the constitution in 1995, has differed among frontline activists and non-activists the same way there is a gulf in opinion between the rural, uneducated and urban, educated segments of the population about the matter.
Article 33 of the Constitution provides that “women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men” and it ring-fences one-third of the membership of each local government council for women.
As it almost is synonymous with everything in Uganda, there is a stark contrast between what is on paper about women empowerment and the reality on the ground. For instance, some 16 women, majority of them in rural areas, die giving birth.
The dry season has imposed on women in villages a new burden of trekking kilometres in the wee hours in search of water for their families.
In Kampala and major towns, the well-heeled women and suited men have a different discourse: About allocation of top public jobs, abolition of female genital mutilation and bride wealth that misleads some men to consider their wives personal property.
In 2015, the Supreme Court abolished refund of bride wealth in the event of a failed marriage but retained its payment in a landmark case filed by Mifumi, a pro-women and children rights group.
The dichotomy in views and priorities played out at the start of week-long series of activities at Makerere University’s Gender and Women Studies Department, with senior lecturer Dr Florence Ebila, without giving specifics, asking the government to appoint more women to top public jobs.
The highest ranked woman in public service is Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who is third in line of authority in the government.
Ms Kadaga was part of frontline actors in the campaign to get women out of the kitchen to boardrooms and political leadership.
That push has seen the number of women in Parliament rise from almost none in the first Parliament to about 150. India’s Vice President Hamid Ansari was, on his recent visit, impressed with the representation that he asked Ms Kadaga to share the trick.
Rwanda which, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union records, proportionately has the highest number of female legislators in the world outshines Uganda ranked at number 31 out of 193 countries sampled.
Figures don’t lie, goes the old adage. For underwhelming scores elsewhere on empowerment, the government can point to increasing numbers of women in cabinet and as ministries’ accounting officers, even if the numbers do not match that of men.
Currently, 13 of the 31 cabinet ministers are women. And there are eleven female permanent secretaries against 20 men responsible for managing the use of public resources for government programmes.
As the world celebrates the International Women’s Day today, one poignant question is whether the big names mean anything to uplifting the downtrodden woman or serve just as symbolism for political correctness. How much power do they really wield and are the growing numbers of women in Parliament making a difference for women?
Yes, Ms Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti–Corruption Coalition of Uganda says. They have especially been instrumental in keeping the government in check, she said, adding: “They are doing a good job. Ms Kadaga time and again ensures the House’s accountability committees are resourced to do their work.”
Her top three performers are; Speaker Kadaga, Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze and Angeline Osegge.
Dokolo Woman representative, Cecilia Atim Ogwal, another of female politicians who have been on the scene for quite some time, says female MPs have been instrumental in framing laws that impact on many lives.
“There are issues that would have been ignored by the male legislators. The women are focusing on those issues; women pushed for the anti–female genital mutilation and the trafficking in persons laws,” she said.
However, one key legislation piece - the Domestic Relations Bill- that activists want enacted to remove many hamstrings for women is gathering dust in Parliament after inconclusive debate on it left Ugandans polarised.
Asked about the low-level of debate by majority first-timer special interest lawmakers, Ms Cecilia Ogwal - referred in the past reverently as “Iron Lady” for standing up to men when only afew women could - said they should take their time “to read, study and learn about the environment before they can open their mouths”.
“They are learning, you don’t produce a child today and expect them to walk. It is good for them to read, listen, research and study so that the time they open their mouth, they can speak from knowledge... for better results,” she said.
An examination of the Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, shows the Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa and Ms Ogwal, alongside a handful other women, out-performed female colleagues in the first session of the 10th Parliament.
By press time, the last plenary of Parliament had Ms Cecilia, whose district is hosting today’s celebration, propose “a ministry to deal with issues of women specifically.”
She hopes to return to Kampala with the “Dokolo Declaration” separating women affairs from the gender ministry under whose docket women issues presently fall.
To augment their relevance in the House, female legislators in the National Resistance Council (1989-1994), created the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA). Its core aim is to facilitate women’s participation and leadership in politics science, technology and socio-economic aspects.
Under the national objectives and directive principles of state policy, the state “shall ensure gender balance and fair representation of marginalised groups on all constitutional and other bodies”, with recognition and affirmative action for women.
The government has disbursed Shs43 billion to 577 women groups in 17 pilot groups under the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP) to get more rural women strat up or build existing businesses.
Other affirmative actions such as the 1.5 free point given to female students for admission to public universities on government scholarship has increased the number of women almost equal to men, and a lady was the best in Makerere University graduation last month.
There is rollercoaster progress on other fronts too. Uwopa programme coordinator, Betty Iyamuremye, says the current crop of women parliamentarians is promising.
“It is a youthful Parliament. They are very ambitious and are keen on many important issues,” she says.
She adds: “If you compare their performance with that of their male counterparts, you may find that they are more on the ground. They extend a lot of support to their districts. They put in a lot of work and they should actually get a larger package.”
Most Woman MPs contribute by way of reaction to motions brought before the House, less than when they originate the motions themselves for discussion, according to our analysis of the Hansard.
One such youthful but vocal and ambitious legislator is Rakai Woman MP Juliet Kyinyamatam, who at the beginning of the session, moved a motion asking government to intervene in the rampant ‘dollarisation’ of the economy and local businesses.
Bukwo’s Evelyne Chemutai is another. On top of highlighting the bad state of roads in her constituency, she started a campaign to fight child pregnancies and early marriages.
Kanungu Woman MP, Ms Elizabeth Karungi, has also been unrelenting, especially during the Prime Minister’s Question Time, on issues to do with infrastructure development in her district.
The Agago woman MP, Judith Akello Franca, is another of the most active. Partly because of her seniority, being a third-term member. She began the 10th Parliament by opposing a proposal by the Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa to increase the number of ministers.
The in-tray is full for women activists as is for the government. Uwopa’s Iyamuremye says the performance of the MPs will keep getting better. High on the Uwopa agenda is readying the legislators to focus on the association’s strategic plan.
“The strategic plan has both a legislative angle; the return of the Marriage and Divorce Bill, push for the passing of the Sexual Offences Bill, the Succession (amendment) Bill and the Employment (amendment) Bill,” she said, adding: “The non-legislative approach is to follow up on maternal health issues, girl child advocacy and women economic empowerment and monitoring the implementation of the certificate of gender equity compliance.”
Compiled by Isaac Imaka, Ibrahim A. Manzil, Nelson Wesonga, Solomon Arinaitwe and David Mafabi
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION SAYS
Art 33(5) Without prejudice to article 32 of this Constitution, women shall have the right to affirmative action for the purpose of redressing the imbalances created by history, tradition or custom.