Gender Links (Johannesburg)

Uganda: Women's Representation on the Rise

opinion

Kampala — Members of Uganda's ninth Parliament were sworn-in this week, with female representation in the House reaching an all-time high.

Women in the East African country are now sitting in 35% of 375 available MP seats, up from the previous 30%.

This increase in Uganda comes as South Africa is likely to see a drop in women's representation following local government and municipal elections.

Other Southern African countries, including Tanzania, have recently slid backwards leading many to call for legislated quotas to protect women's gains.

Uganda's jump was largely due to an increase in the number of districts, which was a controversial move. Critics say the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government's continued creation of new districts (more than 60 over the past decade) simply feeds into a system of patronage and makes the costs of running government unnecessarily high.

Regardless of potential drawbacks, former MP Jane Alisemera, outgoing chair of the Uganda Women's Parliamentary Association (UWOPA), says the current system benefits women.

"It's working - and we women MPs are making things happen."

Directly elected woman MPs are guaranteed district positions in Uganda, but can also run to represent constituencies on top of that. Without the district factor, the number of women in politics would be considerably lower, as patriarchal tendencies and economic inequalities are still very much alive.

Yet in neighbouring Tanzania - which reserves 30% of parliamentary seats for women and allows them to run in all other seats - women's representation actually dropped after last year's election.

The numbers in Namibia dropped from 31 to 22% after the 2009 elections and Botswana has become the worst regional performer in terms of women's representation in parliament, dropping to 6.5% in 2009 from 18% five years earlier.

South Africa is closest to meeting the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development targets of 50/50 representation by 2015 with 45% women in parliament. However, it is still lagging in local government, with only 37% female candidates of the 53 000 running in this week's vote.

Noting these backward slides in other parts of Africa, many gender activists in Uganda are celebrating. Others are more cautious, worrying that if increases in women's participation are not protected by better legislation they will be at risk in future elections.

Earlier this month, chief electoral officer Pansy Tlakula reportedly called for a quota system to improve women's representation in both the public and private sector.

Despite the positive strides in Uganda, the effectiveness of affirmative action is still debated. Some people say giving women guaranteed district spots ups their profile and responsibility, but fails to provide the corresponding funding.

The Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP) says quotas must be met with equal political will, financial support for women and autonomous women wings or committees.

UWOPA's successes are a testament to this. Its initial establishment positioned women with the resources and networks, which in turn established partnerships with civil society and "gender sensitive" male MPs, Alisemera says.

The constitutionally-mandated quota system was the initial boost UWOPA needed to ultimately push key pro-gender legislation through. Domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking persons bills have all gone through with their backing in the past several years.

Uganda's recently-passed domestic violence bill was the most contentious, with many traditionalists saying parliament was not the place to debate domestic violence. This despite 2006 National Demographic and Health statistics which found that almost three quarters of Ugandan women have experienced domestic violence.

Many thought the issue should be left to families and tribal clans to sort out. However, intense lobbying from UWOPA and other women's groups helped push the bill through and it was signed last year by President Yoweri Museveni.

Such examples underscore the need to have equal, pluralistic representation in parliaments and local government. Getting women's numbers up is the first step, keeping them there is the next. Both stages are usually followed by real, tangible results for everyone.

Philippa Croome is a Canadian journalist currently based in Uganda. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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