During a meeting held in Kigali last week, women activists raised concern that there is a lot that needs to be done to have women playing a more robust role in elective politics within the East African Community. In an exclusive interview with The New Times' Sarah Kwihangana, Miria Matembe, a former Ugandan minister and known in East Africa for her role in promoting women emancipation and the girl child education, she says that Rwanda offers good lessons that women can be drivers of a country's development.
Below are the excerpts.
The New Times: During the meeting, most participants almost had a unilateral position that women have been marginalised in areas of policy and decision making in Africa and in the East African region in particular. Can you elaborate?
Miria Matembe: All over the world, women play important roles in politics and yet they are underrepresented in decision making bodies. In all the bodies, be it political or governance women are left and yet, these same bodies continue to make decisions that affect women's lives without their participation, which undermines not only democracy but also development. Political participation is about articulating interests that concern specific people, so when decisions are made without their voice, these certainly cannot be appropriate decisions.
In Africa, with the ongoing democratisation processes, many governments - for instance governments in this region - took advantage of these processes to bring women on board through mainly the quota system and they have been able to participate in politics and to some extent governance but when it comes to real policy making bodies, women are extremely very few.
TNT: What do you think should be done to bring women on board?
MM: There should be a clear political will, you see it's very clear that women participation in decision making not only improves governance but it impacts on development positively. There are many reasons which have been advanced for this. For instance you find that where women participate effectively in decision making there are low levels of infant and maternal mortality there are low levels of population growth, and the HIV/Aids infections.
So the participation of women in politics and decision making is very crucial for the well being of the people and ultimately development. But what is strange is that the leaders of governments know this, as you remember the third MDG is to the effect that unless women are empowered to participate in decision making, Africa will not develop.
They know it, yet when it comes to establishing or instituting mechanisms to enable women participate in policy and decision making they fail.
Women's participation is constrained by a number of factors which should be addressed. One of them is of course ignorance, lack of awareness about the importance and need for women to participate.
Generally, people don't know women themselves are not aware of the need. They don't link the decisions that are made without their participation to things of poverty, diseases, and lack of education. If they knew such, then they would come up and even the public would enhance their participation, but there is ignorance.
There is therefore need to create awareness about the importance of women participation and also need to continue to agitate for the girl child's enrollment into formal education. You know when you're educated; it improves your knowledge, your economic status and gives you authority over your body and to assert yourself over your concern. For example you can say I don't want to stay in this violent marriage, if you're educated and you have a job and you can take care of yourself instead of staying in bondage of a marriage marred by domestic violence.
You can say I want to use condoms or you can say no to a man who might infect you with HIV because when you are empowered and can assert yourself then you can make decisions concerning your life and family. So formal education is very important. Then there is need to put in place a legal framework to curtail discrimination against women, the culture and customary practices also affect women and of course religious misinterpretations all undermine the status of women and deny them the ability to utilise their talents and skills to realise their potential.
There is need for deliberate efforts on the part of governments coupled with a very clear political will demonstrated through establishment of institutions which are very well capacitated with human resource, finances to address the whole issue of mobilising and educating the people about the importance of gender equality and women empowerment.
On the other hand women civil society organisations should strengthen their women movements to assert themselves and should also constitute themselves into real strong constituencies to make their demands clear.
TNT: Looking at the regional level, how are the East African countries fairing when it comes to women empowerment?
MM: We are at different levels, like I told you, in countries which have adopted the Affirmative Action as a strategy they have increased their participation in legislative bodies like local councils, the parliament and some of them have increased at cabinet level and other areas of governance like constitutional bodies.
Rwanda is the best, Uganda also has made some strides plus Tanzania and Burundi but Kenya is the worst within the East African Community in terms of political participation. But the problem is, even where the numbers have increased this has not translated into the impact on policy formulation and implementation. Still, you find that the women are there at political level but their numbers are still very few.
You know decisions are taken by majority so you find when it comes to decisions like in laws they are defeated because the numbers are few. For instance in Uganda it has taken so many years and very long struggles to get some laws enacted like the law of domestic violence, the law on genital mutilation and human trafficking.
In cases where some have been enacted, they are not enforced because there are no mechanisms for their translations into real practical actions to improve the women's lives. It is struggle after struggle and right now, there are those that are not being enforced like the law of marriage and divorce which was recently thrown out of parliament yet they have been advocating for it for the past 45 years.
What is lacking within this region is the real meaningful political will which is demonstrated through actions, the political will supporting gender equality and woman empowerment currently is by word of mouth but when it comes to demonstrating it through actions by establishing strong institutions, laws and policies to empower women they are not there, in Rwanda where they are, things are different.
There is need to break down the structural constraints that undermine gender equality, it's surprising that where as the leaders know that when you don't empower women Africa will remain behind but still they don't do it. They go to the African Union and sign protocols and declarations but they don't ratify them.
TNT: How can women be supported to assume top leadership in the political party's elective posts?
MM: One of the constraints that prevent women from political participation is poverty. There is need for women to be economically empowered, politics have now become expensive, you need money; it's like buying your way in. So if women continue to be economically disempowered they will remain out. How can you support them unless you mobilise them in economic activities so that they can make money, its difficult! But women also need to know their advantage.
They should use their numbers to negotiate for positions. As per now, we are not able to negotiate because we don't know that our numbers are so important and can help us to negotiate for what we want.
TNT: You have repeatedly said that Rwanda is leading when it comes to issues of promoting gender equality and women empowerment, what lessons should be drawn from this country?
MM: In Rwanda there is political will, the President (of the republic) himself is so committed and very well knowledgeable of the values and use of women. He has put it in his head and has gone a long way in ensuring that he taps the potential, talents and wisdom of these women and you can see what is happening in the country, the tremendous development.
If governments had the political will then things can move, but you find it is just lip service in other countries. For instance that in Burundi women are not allowed to inherit property because they fear that their brothers will mistreat them and you put laws to that effect, isn't that stupid? That is total ignorance, if there was political will, the government would take clear steps to go and explain to the whole public the importance and relevance of these women and also put a law in place to protect and help them inherit.
TNT: What message are you sending out there?
MM: Its incumbent upon governments to come to their senses if they want to move forward and develop, if they want to fight HIV/Aids if they want to fight corruption, infant and maternal mortality, high population growth rates and bad nutrition, to promote gender equality and women empowerment.
They cannot talk of good governance and democracy unless women participate, the sooner they do it the better. My message to the women is that they need to get up and know that enough is enough and use any mechanisms they have to enforce their governments to recognise their existence and put in place systems and make their environment conducive for their participation.
They should also use their numbers as bargaining power to threaten those in leadership to take them on board.