Political participation of women has changed since 2005 when Uganda, under donor pressure, opened political space to allow political parties in a country that had been largely a one-party state. With these new political changes, more women found space to engage in politics.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986 after a five-year guerilla war. His rule has been marked by steady economic growth and relative stability in the southern part of the country, but Northern Uganda has seen persistent conflict since he came to power. Thousands have lost their lives in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army rebels.
Museveni's government has been marred with corruption, tribalism, and nepotism. Corruption scandals include the swindling of Global Fund money intended for HIV/AIDS and Malaria patients. Museveni himself crafted an amendment to the Ugandan constitution removing presidential term limits, and Uganda faces a possible life presidency situation that many fear will lead to political instability. Yet, according to the President, he is the only Ugandan with a vision to lead the country.
While Museveni criticized his predecessors for using the army as their personal asset, he has not done any better. There is fear that even if an opposition candidate wins the presidential election in February, the partisan army would never allow him or her to come to power.
Late last year four opposition parties came together and formed the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC), a loose coalition to field a united stand in next general elections. Although opposition party leadership does not include a woman, for the last eight months the name of IPC has been upheld by women.
Ingrid Turinawe is a head of the women's league of the main opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Turinawe also heads the women's wing of the IPC. She has called for the government to disband Uganda's current Electoral Commission saying it is incapable of delivering a free and fair presidential election.
The Supreme Court has pronounced that the last two presidential elections in 2001 and 2006 were not free and fair. Despite this, President Museveni extended the tenure for the current Electoral Commission (EC) heads.
Upon the extension, Turinawe and other women brought a campaign called Women for Peace in response to what they call “a move to rig elections.” Turinawe told me, “It is a commission which is biased, which has rigged elections before. It was ruled by courts of law to be incompetent therefore we feel it will not perform any better in 2011.”
The women also formed the National Alliance for Free and Fair Elections (NAFFE), a pressure group with the aim of raising the flag on the EC.
On January 18, the women marched to the EC offices in Kampala calling for the resignation of the EC boss Badru Kiggundu. This was the first time any group mobilized against the Electoral Commission re-appointments. They were met with sticks and guns from the police and in the end 33 women were arrested, but not without being beaten and undressed in a deliberate attempt to humiliate the women. The group has since staged several demonstrations across the country.
On June 14, at one of their appearances at court, the IPC women arrived clad in T-shirts that continued their campaign against the EC. Roughed up again, it was reported that the police tried to undress members of the group and Turinawe and three other women were sprayed with what doctors called a “dangerous chemical” that left them unconscious and hospitalized for a week.
Since the July 11 bombings in Kampala that killed 76 people, security has been on high and the government has refused to allow any group to stage a demonstration under the guise of security concerns. But a week after the bombings the IPC women and NAFFE staged the first nationwide demonstrations against the EC in order to raise the issue with the African Union heads who were holding a summit in Kampala. At the end of the day over 80 people, most of them women, were arrested.
According to Turinawe, their aim is to prevent election related violence. “We have seen war in this country fought because of unfair elections. In fact, President Museveni started a rebellion on the premise of a stolen election. So when we see the same things happening under his administration we women have to come up,” she said. “When there's violence it is [women] who suffer most - we are raped; our children are forced to fight. So in short, we want to prevent another Kenya from happening in Uganda.”
At the heart of the clashes is the women's call for their right to demonstrate and the police's denial of that right. The Uganda police remain largely partisan, leaning toward the regime in power. For any dissenting voices to hold a rally or demonstration they must seek police permission even when courts have called that action illegal.
“We used to go to ask for permission from the police, but it only looked like we were alerting them to prepare themselves to beat us instead of providing us security as the law stipulates,” says Turinawe.
Women's rights activists in Uganda have been particularly concerned about the handling of women during protests in a way that is explicitly intended to humiliate and embarrass.
“We are in a situation when we still have to argue that it is wrong when a woman is arrested [and] you see her panties. I don't see men in that position,” said Solome Nakawesi from Akina mama Wa Afrika. “We are clambering to reach a point when women are on equal footing with men,” she said.
The humiliation of women in politics has not just started. In 2008 police undressed a Kampala female parliamentarian Nabilah Sempala as they arrested her over staging an “illegal” rally in the capital. Pictures on television stations showed several male officers raising the skirt of the lawmaker on the streets of downtown Kampala. Although the incident was discussed in parliament, no police officer was charged.
A prominent minister in President Museveni's government, Kahinda Otafiire, later said on a radio talk show that the female legislator was undressed because “she is beautiful.”
Uganda police brutality is well documented and it usually increases over election periods. The situation has attracted the attention of the US administration. In May this year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a report on Uganda's preparation for the 2011 elections. The report cited that the Ugandan government had compromised the independence of Uganda's Electoral Commission, and she criticized Uganda's police brutality and gag on free media.
As the election comes closer and President Museveni seeks re-election to stretch his 24-year rule, the situation for opposition women will be even more precarious. Paramilitaries have come into force working alongside the police. The “Kiboko” squad, a group of men armed with sticks, has been at the center of humiliating and injuring demonstrators.
Despite all these challenges, women in opposition are not budging. Their strength lies in their organization, something that political parties have not achieved in the past. Opposition women in Uganda are spontaneous and monitoring them has been difficult for the police.
The women promise to continue staging nationwide protests until the president makes the necessary changes at the EC. It is too early to measure the impact of IPC women's political participation, but for sure these women will change the way politicians will engage women in the coming election.