Good political women have gone with the wind

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

  • “Too many dynamics have changed and the expectations of these women have also since changed."

This is March, we are still celebrating the women. As if to pay tribute to women in politics, the incredible Charles Onyango Obbo asked an interesting question in last week’s Ear to the Ground column. He wondered, ‘where have all the good political women gone?’ He goes on to cite the ‘older, calmer, prestigious female politicians with a history’.  
The easy answer would be to say, ‘they have gone with the wind’. He sounded sad that today, the ‘Ugandan female and male politicians stand shoulder to shoulder, equal in their infamy’. By implication, it means that there are no good political women today – just the bad ones (my interpretation). 

I am often amused by this expectation, something akin to, a hope that women would come with their house brooms and clean whatever spaces they occupied and rid them of the pests that infested them. So the entry of female politicians, the ‘good ones’ should have translated into cleaning up our democratic house, sterilising them, enough to be safe spaces for ‘clean politics’. Clearly, the women have not done a good job. 
Anyway, seriously, where have all the ‘good political women gone?’ Maybe the same question could be asked, ‘where have all the good political men gone?’ Watching our politics each day, can we even afford to engender this question or simply wonder about what has gone wrong with our politics that good people cannot seem to stay? 
I am reminded of a study by David Dollar, Raymond Fisman and Roberta Gatti in the late 1990s. They asked, ‘are women really the “fairer” sex? They were studying the subject of corruption and women in government, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation in 1999. They based on earlier studies that tended to find women to be more trustworthy and public-spirited than men. 

In these studies, women ‘should’ be particularly effective in promoting honest government. And indeed, Dollar and colleagues found that, the greater the representation of women in parliament, the lower the level of corruption. And they found that this association was present in a large cross-section of countries with wide application in a range of areas. 
Other studies before them found that women are more likely to exhibit helping behaviour, vote based on social issues, score more highly on integrity tests, take stronger stances on ethical behaviour and behave more generously when faced with economic decisions. By implication, women are less likely to sacrifice the common good for personal (material) gain. So, these assumptions, were key in driving the role of women in government, increasingly in other spaces. 
But even then, these were the good old 80s and roaring 90s, filled with hope in many things. In Uganda, we hoped that things would be different with more women in politics.
These assumptions may not hold, if we design a system that particularly encourages government agents to behave opportunistically, at the expense of the public as Dollar and colleagues suggest. And, it is dependent on a high degree of representation by ‘good’ women in government. We do know, that even with more women holding top positions now, the government remains largely male-dominated. How then can we expect that women will behave differently in that system? 

The political environment and context in which the amazing Byanyima and others mentioned thrived is far removed from the one in which the current crop of women operate. There should be many women of similar calibre as the Byanyima’s who are simply lost in this type of political space they find themselves in.  Even worse, many more who cannot begin to think of joining the space in the first place. 
Comparisons must have some basic common areas of comparison. The politics of the 1990s and after nearly four decades of President Museveni, cannot leave the women’s agenda the same. The women’s movement itself has gone through various areas of transformation. Too many dynamics have changed and the expectations of these women have also since changed – from cleaning the government to ensuring its continuity at all costs perhaps while enjoying themselves a bit. The aspirations have changed too. 

Our politics is very different now. Some of the good, older, calmer or vibrant and prestigious women with a “history” are still in the house, but can the house accommodate good political women and men? Maybe that is the starting point. 
Arguments that women bring enriching values to government and rarely succumb to authoritarian styles as older research suggests all depend on the political context in which they play.  Ours is not one of those contexts that would encourage positive influence of women because the women soon learn that they must play differently and they do.