UGANDA: Ugandan Politics: Counting Women in

Monday, February 21, 2011
Street News Service
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

The 2011 International Women's Day will be celebrated worldwide on March 8. Yet as the day approaches, Ugandan women find themselves confronting the same age-old question: Is there cause to celebrate the day at all?

Proscovia Nakalembe has been so gripped by the election fever sweeping Uganda since the turn of the year that she's momentarily taken aback when asked about her plans for the Women's Day that's fast-approaching.

"It's still far off, isn't it?" she inquires in her native Luganda dialect. "I doubt I have anything planned off the top of my head. I have been preoccupied with elections and to be frank, the Women's Day has not exactly been at the forefront of my mind."

Women might be traditionally great at multi-tasking but in all fairness to Nakalembe, few Ugandans had a moment to think beyond February 18, the day that was earmarked for the general elections. Unlike International Women's Day, which falls once every year, Election Day in Uganda falls just once every five years.

Nakalembe is just one of the millions of voters who perceived the day as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have some input in the general direction of the country.

She also thinks that since Election Day falls just weeks before International Women's Day, maybe the gods have granted Ugandan women an opportunity to celebrate their day in the most effective way possible….through the ballot.

"Now that I think about it," Nakalembe states, "I will celebrate my Women's Day prematurely by voting for those candidates whose campaign manifestos revolve around pro-women policies. All women should use this opportunity to advance their welfare by electing candidates who have their best interest at heart."

Women are a majority in Uganda and they happen to be very passionate about their politics. While most men have been found to use the public holiday on Election Day to rest and go drinking from dawn till dusk, surveys in the media have discovered that women are diligent voters; taking time off on Election Day to endure long lines and the fickle weather elements to cast their votes.

Courting women successfully is therefore a strong ingredient in any winning political formula. This perhaps explains why the incumbent, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has won three consecutive elections.

Like any leader, Museveni has his flaws but few can dispute his record when it comes to women.

With more than 40% women in his cabinet, Museveni's pro-women policies have installed women in powerful decision-making positions. This has, in turn, made him the candidate of choice for women every time the country goes to the polls.

His rivals, having fallen victim to this trick three times already, have decided to emulate it.

All opposition candidates in the February 18 general election packed their manifestos with pro-women agenda and since the campaigns kicked off, women have been luxuriating in the rare position of being fought over as acknowledged king-makers.

"It's a departure from the past when Museveni was the only one who seemed to have women at heart," Nakalembe confesses. "Now all the major parties seem to want to please us. They seem to have awakened up to the fact that since we are the majority, women will have the final say on who wins."

Nakalembe's opinion on the importance of women though isn't shared by her entire gender.

Ingrid Turinawe, an opposition politician, claims there's no reason for Ugandan women to celebrate Women's Day since equal rights for women remain non-existent.

Turinawe is adamant that while women can determine who enters political office due to their numerical superiority, it's all irrelevant since women have failed to exercise their electoral powers effectively.

"There is no reason for the Ugandan woman to celebrate Women's Day," Turinawe insists. "As women, we have a number of issues that affect us; we want to see changes, socially, economically and politically. We have no other weapon to fight for change other than our vote. My vote is my hope and my vote is the future of my children. But can we use that power effectively?"

She adds: "We can determine who comes to office but since many women aren't educated or sensitized, politicians easily manipulate and lie to them prompting them to vote for those who pay mostly lip service to women's rights. This government has turned the continued exploitation and hoodwinking of women into a culture."

That illiteracy is still a problem among Ugandan women is undeniable. According to the recent National Household Survey, 17% of the population aged 15 years and above have never had formal schooling, with the proportion being higher among females (24%) compared to males (10%). The female adult literacy rate is estimated at 59% compared to 80% for males.

Turinawe gives, as an example, President Museveni's consistent capacity to woo women voters.

"Museveni has been in power for 24 years but it has been 24 years of poverty, no medicines in hospitals and no employment for women and our children; 24 years of women dying during child birth every day. Why should we celebrate the high prices of basic commodities? Can we celebrate as more girls drop out of school? We will demonstrate, as they celebrate."

Turinawe last year assembled over 100 women to peacefully march from the city centre to Mulago, the largest referral hospital in Uganda. The women chanted and carried banners urging the government to turn its pro-women policies from word to deed but she believes the government continues to fail in its delivery.

"What we fought for last time is still here. Despite all the power we have with our ballots, Uganda's mothers are suffering; we deliver babies on bare floors so why should we celebrate?"

Turinawe's argument is borne out by statistics that reveal that sixteen women die each day in Uganda during pregnancy and childbirth.

And while pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women between the ages of 15-19, 80% of maternal deaths wouldn't occur if women had access to improved healthcare.

Miria Obote, an opposition presidential candidate in the 2006 elections, concurs: "We should be celebrating but there's no reason to celebrate. We aren't celebrating because thousands of women die of over-bleeding in hospitals during labour where there is no blood for transfusion. Hundreds of thousands of our children die in infancy before their first birthday due to preventable diseases."

The government, though, dismisses all such criticism as "cheap politics," citing the increased number of women in political and economic office as a cause for celebration.

A case in point is the number of women MPs which is currently at 105 and rising.

The government argues that increasing the women in the political domain generally improves the welfare of the gender through broader representation.

As evidence, the government quotes the way women MPs came together under the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) to spearhead and lobby for the Domestic Violence Bill as well as the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Bill, both of which were passed.

Whether Uganda women have cause to celebrate come March 8 seems to vary according to one's political divide. Nevertheless, one fact is irrefutable: While Ugandan women have come far in their campaign to attain equal rights, they still have a long way to go and so should use March 8 to keep the embers of their struggle alive.