Is affirmative action for women still needed?

It seems like affirmative action has achieved what it was meant to achieve; get more girls in class. Many now question its necessity. net photo.

What you need to know:

Assessment. In an era where women do not only challenge men but win on different fronts like politics and the boardroom, do they still need the government to help them get ahead?

When two babies, a boy and a girl, were born in the same family among the Langi of Northern Uganda, the boy was considered more of a blessing than the girl. “As the boy grew older, he was mentored into taking over family leadership and wealth,” says Charles Olet, 78, one of the paramount chiefs in Ogengo village, Lira Municipality. Land was one aspect of family wealth.

According to Olet, land belonged to clans and was communally used. Heads of families, however, had the responsibility to supervise it, which responsibility they passed on to their sons. “Not daughters, just sons. Boys would stay with their families unlike girls who left the family when they got married, in which case the land would have transferred with them to another clan,” he explains.

Where all the children in the family were girls, the uncles would be the next option. This is one of the cultural behaviours that shows a glaring gender gap, in favour of the men. It is factors such as these that, in the modern era, formed the basis for affirmative action for women.

Affirmative action is basically about deliberately providing opportunities or advantage to a sex being discriminated against. This has been realised in education, politics and continues to be advanced in governance.

Recently, the Uganda female Members of Parliaments (MPs), in partnership with the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association (UWEAL), proposed that 50 per cent of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) resources be allocated to women.

They argued that women constitute 70 per cent of Ugandans involved in agriculture yet, according to UWEAL, only 20 per cent benefit from the resources channeled through the NAADS programme.

“Government should ensure that gender responsive planning, budgeting and monitoring is core to all projects,” argued Dr Gudula Naiga Basaza, the chairperson of UWEAL. The proposal was unanimously agreed upon by the female MPs.

The fruits of the action
What was proposed was a case of affirmative action for women. Important to note is the fact that some of these MPs are part of the 112 female legislators on affirmative action tickets as district representatives, as provided for by the the 1995 Uganda Constitution. While then affirmative action was unequivocal, today there are questions on whether it is still necessary.

In the recently released Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education results, for example, girls out performed boys. Girls performed better than boys in subjects once considered boys’ domain like Economics and Mathematics.

In Kampala and Mukono districts, some of the best performing districts in the country, girls’ schools came on top (Gayaza High School and Mt St Mary’s Namagunga, respectively).

In Uganda today, there are women who have stood against men in parliamentary elections and won parliamentary seats. So, in the era where women do not only challenge men but win in class, politics and the boardroom, is there still need for affirmative action for women?

Affirmative action is our right
Women rights activist and beneficiary of affirmative action for Mbarara District in 1996, Miria Matembe, says affirmative action is not a favour, but a right.

She argues that the focus should not be on a woman winning an election, but rather on why it was enacted and the motivation it provides.
“Affirmative action was enacted to provide a platform for women to articulate women issues at public fora and address the constraints such as culture and sheer ignorance that prevented them from being represented in politics.

It would also serve as a motivation for the public to elect women in other positions of responsibility, knowing that they can perform,” says Matembe.
Professor Fredrick Jjuuko, a Makerere University law don and political commentator says affirmative action is needed to address the historical gender imbalances but stresses that this is only a transitional measure. “What is needed most are economic empowerment programmes like in agriculture to uplift the status of women,” he says.

Rita Achiro, the Executive Director, Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) says the proposal to allocate 50 per cent of Naads resources to women is “one hundred plus correct” but much more should be done. “Where is the land the woman will till?” she asks, referring to the traditions which bar women from owning land. “The women might have access to the land but have no ownership. And this is critical.

Issues of land, marital rights and ownership of property should be addressed first because the women will not till the land when there are marital problems, anyway,” argues Achiro.

Affirmative action, Achiro adds, is still needed in education. “The national outlook might show that girls performed better than boys but where do those girls come from? Is it not from Kampala, Wakiso and those other urban areas? We still need affirmative action for girls in rural areas,” she says.

It is being abused
While noting that affirmative action in politics is necessary and therefore scrapping it would be a step backwards, Matembe says it has been abused. “It is presented by people in power to show that they are promoting women when in actual sense the women are being manipulated,” she says, adding; “Government is creating districts that are not viable and what we have are women who are not necessarily interested in women issues but women who take their parliamentary seats as jobs.”

Betty Nambooze Bakireke, MP for Mukono Municipality, agrees. “If all the 112 district women MPs and those of us representing mainstreaming constituencies were for the interests of women, why did we fail to defend the bill?” Nambooze asks.

Nambooze is referring to the Domestic Relations Bill, which was proposed but was never passed. “If the women MPs are elected to represent women, then they should be accountable to the women. However, the nature of their electorate being men and women prompts the female MPs to the interests of their political godfathers, who are men, rather than the women,” adds Nambooze.

Achiro believes affirmative action needs reforms. “Look at their title,” she notes, “They are called District Woman MPs. If they represent women, their title ought to have been District Women’s MPs and their electorate should be women just as the youth, the army and the workers elect their representatives.”

Nambooze suggests that women councils should elect women representatives. “Even if the number of women MPs is reduced to 30 but whom specifically represent women that would be better off than having many women MPs who are subjected to other interests.”

Cissy Kagaba, executive director, Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda
The way affirmative action is structured today works against girls. When girls perform better than boy, it is girls from urban schools not girls from rural areas. The Local Government Act spells out women representation in local councils but records show that women contribute less and the final decisions are made by men. We need to look at the big picture. What are those issues affecting girls and women. These are the real issues that we need to address otherwise for how long shall we have affirmative action?

Maggie Kigozi, board member, Crown Beverages
There is absolutely still need for affirmative action. In rural areas, girls miss school during the menstrual periods, and are charged with taking care of their parents when they fall sick. We need to bridge these gaps. In government corporations, only 30 per cent of women are on the boards yet women are 52 per cent of the population. Until we get at least 50 per cent representation, we cannot give up on affirmative action. In the private sector, there is no legislation for women to serve on the boards. In procurement, less than one per cent is procured from women-owned businesses. When shall we buy more from women?

Lydia Namubiru, journalist
Affirmative action is still necessary for women especially in the labour market and in education. The average man still earns about double what a woman earns. There is gender discrimination where people just pay women less for no reason except that they are women. But most importantly, women are less educated, hence hold lower paying jobs. Women are not the CEO of MTN or the Chief Justice. The Kaginas and Musisis are the minority. We need to close these gaps. That is if we believe in fairness and equality.