UGANDA: Focus - Little change for women despite affirmative action
KAMPALA, 19 December 2002 (IRIN) - Since coming to power in 1986, Uganda's National Resistance Movement (NRM) has made significant strides towards including women as partners in the country's development and decision-making process. But tradition dies hard, and Ugandan women complain there is still a long way to go.
During its 16-year rule under President Yoweri Museveni, the Movement has been widely praised for introducing affirmative action policies in favour of marginalised groups in society, particularly women.
As a result, women's rights for the first time have been enshrined in the Ugandan constitution. Uganda's women's movement has grown dramatically into a vibrant political force throughout the country. Uganda also is the first African country to have appointed a woman as vice president. The affirmative action policy has, for example, ensured that at least a third of legislative and civic positions were reserved for women.
The Ugandan government also introduced a Universal Primary Education (UPE) policy to provide free education to four children per family, two of whom must be girls. At the tertiary education level, extra points were added for girls to allow more women to study in the university. CULTURE DIES HARD
In spite of these successes, however, Ugandan feminists complain that their countrywomen still have a long way to go before their efforts to be recognised in the largely patriarchal society bear any significant fruits.
Although the Ugandan government has offered good leadership in promoting women's rights, they say, economic factors and the lack of supporting infrastructure continue to prevent women from achieving gender parity.
Sharon Lamwaka, who works for the Kampala-based Akina Mama wa Afrika [Kiswahili for Women of Africa], an international women's organisation, argues that although the Museveni regime has accorded women considerable "space in which to operate", the status of Ugandan women on the ground has not changed much.
"Many women's NGOs [non-governmental organisations] have come up during the NRM period. For all these organisations to come up, it means the government is giving women a favourable atmosphere," Lamwaka told IRIN in Kampala.
"A few men are just beginning to accept the fact that women are advancing. But there are a lot of educated men who still believe in patriarchy. So how much worse is it for the traditional man in the village who totally believes in patriarchy?" she asks.
Gladys Owor, a vendor in the downtown Owino market, argues that she is yet to see the benefits of affirmative action in her daily life. She is among local women who quietly endure daily violence and indignity both at the family and community levels, because they are ecnomically dependent on their spouses. "If I report my husband to the police, he will go to prison. And then who will give me money?" she says.
However, gender violence is not only the problem of poor women in Uganda. Earlier this year, Uganda's Vice President Specioza Kazibwe publicly admitted she had left her marriage as a result of beatings she received from her husband, while she was already the vice president of the country.DISCRIMINATORY LAWS
Uganda's renowned feminist Sylvia Tamale argues that the guarantees of equality in the constitution and the promotion of women's participation in decision-making from grassroots to national level, have largely failed to eradicate entrenched cultural, religious and traditional authorities which implicitly discriminate against women.
"The rest of Uganda may have decided that women have got everything that they ever wanted from the National Resistance Movement government," Tamale told IRIN. "But the women of Uganda, regardless of their socio-economic background, religion, culture, ethnicity or race, share a deep-rooted anger which has been mostly masked by individual coping mechanisms."
According to Tamale, who is also a lecturer of law at Uganda's main Makerere university, both statutory laws and traditional society norms to a great extent are still restricted to the patriarchal view which uses social control mechanisms to perpetuate the subordination of women.
Ugandan law also has no specific policies on sexual harassment, despite the fact it is still rampant in work places, colleges and other social areas, she said.
"Women's dressing is a favourite topic of the public including the media, religious bodies, parliamentarians, cultural leaders and so forth," she said. "We are constantly lectured to about 'decent dressing' and warned that we would have only ourselves to blame if men assault us sexually when we dress in a 'sexy manner' that exposes our sexuality."
Women parliamentarians have themselves frequently complained of being subjected to sexual harassment and ridicule in parliamentary debates by their male colleagues. They also complain of being constantly reminded by the media that their presence in parliament, through affirmative action, is based on tokenism.FRUSTRATIONS IN PARLIAMENT
Women parliamentarians' efforts to introduce laws giving women equal rights in society have been frustrated by the lack of goodwill among gender insensitive male and some female politicians.
In 1998 for example, the Ugandan government passed a new land and property legislation which among other things was to recognise the right of women to own land and property.
Customarily, women in many African countries including Uganda have no right to own marital land or property. In most cases when a husband dies, his land and property - including his widow and children - are "inherited" by his brothers. This exclusion of women from property ownership is considered one of the most severe forms of gender discrimination in Ugandan society.
When women parliamentarians lobbied for amending the Act to include women's co-ownership of the matrimonial residence, the law was promulgated, but the amendment was mysteriously omitted from the legislation. Their eforts to re-introduce the issue in parliament have so far been unsuccesful. CHALLENGES AHEAD
Barbara Mbire-Barunge, also a lecturer at Makerere University, argues that the failure of parliament to pass controversial amendments stems from the fact that women's rights issues are shrouded in uncertainty and depend on the politics of the day.
The main challenge towards improving the lives of Ugandan women lies in raising the consciousness of women themselves regarding their rights, and to ignite a willingness on their part to know and act on the various ways of ensuring these rights within a "politically correct" environment.
"Most women are still not aware of their legal rights," she said. "Therefore, where the customary law conflicts with the statutory laws, the women tend to be highly disadvantaged."
Oweyega Afunadula, a political scientist at Makerere University, however has a different view. He argues that the feminist movement in Uganda has failed to bring tangible changes in the lives of local women, due to their close association with major political forces in the country to which their success is credited.
"The majority of them [women leaders] have been trained by politicians," he told IRIN. "Many of them have political godfathers. It is a way for political leaders to extend their power to civil society. The government has firmly pushed its claws into the feminist movement."