10 May 2017

East Africa: Study Pours Cold Water On EAC Women Political Leaders Ability to Effect Change

Photo: Daily News
Tanzanian Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan is one of the women with highest positions in East Africa's politics (file photo).

A study on gender equality in East Africa has found that despite being ranked among countries with the highest number of women in political leadership, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania are no different from Kenya, as real power to make decisions and deliver equity still belongs to men.

With female leaders failing to influence political decisions, the needs of women who form the majority of the population in East African remain subordinate to men.

The study is titled "East African Community Gender Barometer," which has baseline statistics, where partner states check off progress on implementation of the yet-to-be assented to gender equity law that was passed by the regional assembly in March 2017. It emerged that the large number of women in politics hadn't made much of a difference in achieving equity.

The gender equality, equity and development law is meant to protect women and children against sexual and gender-based violence, force EAC partners states to provide free primary and secondary education for all, reduce maternal and child mortality and protect the rights of civilians during war.

The law is also meant to get EAC partner states to achieve gender parity in politics, so that both women and men enjoy the same influence in budgeting and deciding which public services are the most important for the population. This has not happened.

Dr Stella Nyanzi

In Uganda, for example, issues that affect women are generally underfunded. Jailed Makerere University researcher Dr Stella Nyanzi has for example pointed government's failure to provide money for menstrual pads for poor girls to keep them in school the month around.

Dr Nyanzi pointed an accusing finger at the man who made this pledge in the heat of his campaign for re-election and who also holds the ultimate authority to determine whether it would be included on the budget, President Yoweri Museveni. According to Nyanzi, President Museveni reneged on that promise.

But rather that encourage debate on the fundamental issues she raised, Dr Nyanzi's use of expletives when arguing her case instead landed her in jail. And now, the Government wants her to undergo a sanity test. She was released on bail on May 10.

More money needed

Other areas considered a priority for women that have been underfunded include the failure to facilitate police officers and the judicial system in the prosecution of those who commit gender and sexual violence, funding for family planning and the failure to reduce the number of women dying during childbirth.

But according to Marren Akatsa-Bukachi, the executive director Eastern African Sub-Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women the Gender Barometer would change this, as women leaders will finally get a tool they can use to engage with the men who currently wield the real power.

She says that with the barometer, women activists and leaders will have access to statistics that they can then use to push governments for increased budgets.

According to Dr Josephine Ahikire, the Dean at the School of Women and Gender Studies who designed the barometer, the challenge of the region and its leaders is that female leaders are not participating enough in the decision making process to better serve the interests of women.

Power without influence

Rwanda is ranked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as the most female friendly country in the world where 64 per cent of parliamentarians are women. Tanzania has 36.8 per cent, Burundi 36.4 per cent, Uganda 32 per cent and Kenya 19.7 per cent.

But Dr Ahikire says that with these numbers East African countries now face a paradox, where a large number of women in decision making positions, corresponds to females increasingly drifting away from any meaningful power that would help deliver equity for their gender.

"Creating seats for women has created a ghetto, where women are largely represented, but critical political leadership decisions remain male dominated," she says.

The women are still subordinate to men and there is dismal performance by governments in the delivery of gender justice. Such "ghettos" are segregated places where women are then allowed to participate in politics, but without exercising any real influence.

These include the women's league in political parties, being seats ring-fenced for women in national and local government elective politics.

Dr Ahikire adds that this problem can be found at both national and local governments, and no country is an exception. Even Rwanda where majority political leaders are women, they still don't make critical decisions.


Jane Mpagi Uganda's Director in charge of Gender and Community Development blames the women leaders' failure to change the fate of womenfolk on the representative politics that pervades the region.

Ms Mpagi says that the current politics has created a situation where female political representatives don't participate much in budgeting processes and are detached from the rest of the women population.

This, she says makes it impossible for female leaders to present issues that would bring about change in women's lives. And sometimes the women being represented sabotage their own cause as they lack information.

She highlights the case of the marriage and divorce bill which the Uganda parliament failed to pass in 2015 after ordinary women took to the streets to protest the fact that their leaders were considering passing such a law.

"This was a case of the women we represent turning against us, because they had not been engaged and lacked information," she says of the law that has been awaiting parliament's approval for more than 40 years.

In 2015, the law, pushed by the Uganda parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, went as far as final stage of before it was dropped.

The marriage and divorce bill would have, among other things, helped improve property and land ownership rights for women in Uganda, which is also among the things that the EAC gender law is supposed to deliver.

Some critics, however, say the women movement in the region has failed, because it pays allegiance to individual political party politics. It is therefore unclear how the EAC barometer would address such a problem.

Rita Atukwasa the chief executive Institute for Social Transformation says that the region lacks brave women like Dr Nyanzi.

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