In politics, as they say, there are no permanent foes or friends but only interests. With the youth now having the largest bloc vote ahead of the 2011 general elections, parties are pulling all stops to court young voters at the expense of their erstwhile darlings - the women, writes Benon H. Oluka:-
The youngest presidential candidate, Nobert Mao, 43, has declared himself the candidate of the UB40s (Ugandans Below 40) and personally maintains an online social network account on facebook.com, with more than 10,000 members. President Museveni, 66, who has now been in power for 25 years, released a rap song at a rally called specifically to court the youth vote.
And in the Uganda People's Congress, which has lost many of its older generation of leaders to other political parties, officials say the decision to put youthful officials in senior position is a deliberate attempt to re-energise the party as it seeks to move beyond the independence generation.
Within the opposition coalition, the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC), most of their manifesto focuses on youth issues. Because more than half of Uganda's population are aged 30 and below, and will therefore be eligible to vote in the February 18, 2011 general elections if they have registered, the political parties fielding candidates are pulling all stops to win over young voters – in the way they have designed their campaign promises, messages and positioned their candidates. With more than 50 per cent of the economically active youth not engaged in income generating employment, articulating a job creation programme that appeals to the youth could be a crucial bloc vote winning strategy.
Ms Kawamara thinks political parties and their leaders are shunning women even before resolving their problems and are now moving on to “use the youth” as a stepping stone to leadership positions. “I have not seen a candidate who is appealing to the women's vote,” she said. “To me, it is an abuse to women. These women are supporting families and the economy; they contribute to agriculture. [But] they are being taken for granted.”
The indifference towards female voters, which is evident in the campaigns ahead of the 2011 general election, is new territory for many women. In the last three presidential elections since 1996, issues concerning women – who are largely considered as bloc voters – received special treatment from all candidates, especially President Museveni.
According to Onghwens Kisangara, a researcher attached to the Uganda NGO Forum and the Africa Leadership Institute, the focus on women issues in the 1990s was mainly a response to a global trend. “The reason women were very important in the previous elections is we were coming from an era when women emancipation was important not just in Uganda and the whole world. That is why women concerns were very central in the campaigns,” he said.
Buoyed by Dr Kazibwe's sudden rise, and the surging affirmative action movement in the country, Uganda's women managed to win a series of other concessions from the Museveni government in the 1995 Constitution.
One of the more politically significant ones was giving women exclusive parliamentary seats at district level.
Within three elections over a 15-year period, the number of women in parliament had increased from eight legislators in 1996 to 101 out of 333 seats in 2006, a rise attributed in part to the creation of new districts.
The decision to treat women as a special interest group and offer them exclusive slots at different levels of political leadership was intended to prop up female politicians before they could compete for mainstream elective positions.
However, according to Mr Kisangara, many of the initial set of female leaders let the initiative down. “What was conceived as an affirmative action for women at different representative levels failed to uplift women in the social strata partly because the women who got uplifted kept on getting recoiled in that role for a while. That approach has denied other women who would use the same position the opportunity to rise and therefore uplift other women folk,” he said.
In the Eighth Parliament, senior legislators who have served for more than two terms on the special interest group seats include the deputy speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, the minister without portfolio and deputy secretary general of the ruling NRM Dorothy Hyuha, the secretary general of the leading opposition party, FDC, Ms Alice Alaso, Agriculture Minister Hope Mwesigye, and NRM Spokesperson Mary Karooro Okurut.
Ms Kawamara, who says female politicians let other women down by accepting to be “mere supporters of the status quo” rather than building on what they had achieved, thinks there should have been limits on the number of terms that one could get to Parliament as district woman MP. This is already practised for the youth MP seats, where anyone aged 32 and beyond cannot contest.
The lack of continuity in women legislative circles threw a spanner in the works of the women emancipation movement and derailed its course.
Now, with political leaders focussing on another bloc without completing the plans that they had for women, the drive to uplift the livelihoods of women ends up looking like just another political gimmick. “The affirmative action has largely been used for selfish political ends by the political leaders. Women have been literally used by the men, especially. The entire women emancipation project in Uganda was not intended to uplift women. It was to gain political dividends. Now, with that dividend having been achieved and consolidated, the focus is now being shifted elsewhere,” he said.