We have to cautiously discuss affirmative action

Monday July 27 2020


By Emilly C. Maractho

A professor friend, who is an amazing political scientist at Makerere University, and I were this week reminiscing about our doctoral journeys, professional life and experiences with building houses as women in different times.
I told her about my frustrations and that I nearly abandoned my house project, that is still perhaps a decade to completion.

She told me about the decade she spent building one house, and being offered a buy-out by a man because she was taking too long to complete. It made me feel better as we joked and laughed.
Fortunately, her house, is worth the decade she spent building it. I would gladly be her property agent to find a tenant when she needs one.

I told her that sadly, many people would imagine that it is easier for me now than it must have been for her then. She laughed and said, ‘no way, it is true we made some progress in the 1980s but we have regressed. Those of you in gender studies should pay attention’. We were advised to build smaller houses like women.

Last week a reporter was wondering why some women spend their lives on affirmative action seats in Parliament despite acquiring money, power and influence.
As usual, he started to name them - Speaker Kadaga, Ms Ruth Nankabirwa (Government Chief Whip), Ms Cecilia Ogwal, arguably among the brilliant legislators this country has had, and others intending to join like minister Jane Ruth Aceng.

I have heard some people argue that it should be much easier for these women to win direct constituency seats because the women’s constituencies are more complicated. They imagine that affirmative action has been a huge favour to women. The problem is it is not. It has most likely been the burden that some brilliant women politicians have had to contend with.

I have in the past passionately written about the need for women in politics to look beyond affirmative action (Daily Monitor, Thursday, July 29, 2010) and much later in 2015, sadly looking at how affirmative action had become a burden for women after a series of interviews I had just concluded.


And in July 2020 painfully acknowledging that we still need affirmative action, even for women who have been in politics for decades.
We can look at the figures since the adoption of quota system in 1989 and its entrenchment in the 1995 Constitution.

The number of women in Parliament during general elections held in 1989 were (16 per cent); 1996 (17 per cent); 2001 (24.7 per cent); 2006 (31.4 per cent); and 2011 (34.8 per cent) and by 2016, the composition is 32 per cent, a drop from the 9th Parliament. Given by-elections and new districts the percentage may have changed.

The numbers have largely to do with the district women’s seats and rising number of districts. I am shy to mention the proportion of these on direct constituency representation. I am inclined not to mention the numbers in local government leadership because there is such a thing as ‘very sad’ statistics.

Many interpret the meagre representation in the direct constituency or local government leadership to imply that women are less competent or that affirmative action has lost its relevance.

The narrative of relevance is building as we enter this election cycle, with eyes on the women who have spent over a decade without looking at the men who have been in Parliament for three decades, still counting.
As my professor friend noted, there has been regression in terms of the momentum for supporting the gender equality agenda.

Moreover, when it comes to women’s empowerment, we have to endure incredible lip service not just by political leaders but also often the women’s movement.
To make it worse, some of the women who occupy these political positions, one wishes if they had power to just send them to the deepest parts of the earth never to get near Parliament or Cabinet again.
I believe that affirmative action in politics remains relevant. We have not managed to create institutions that work for women.

The structures of patriarchy are not only alive but thriving, all militating against women. I have written about the cultural constraints to women’s participation in public life. The fact that women compete for positions with each other changes the dynamics and reserves the seat for one.

I watched a one-hour interview on People Power and throughout the reference was to ‘these young men’ in People Power. I see brilliant, courageous women carrying the torch in People Power, but ‘lo and behold’, they do not exist in media conversations of the forces shaping it. That is just one of the many examples.

We should cautiously discuss affirmative action in politics because we are a long way home. If we are opposed to people staying too long in Parliament beyond two terms, it should apply to all regardless of how they get there. I respect the women who stick it out in politics for as long as they do.

Ms Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at UCU.