Uganda’s female parliamentarians are challenging the country’s male-centric political system. They are doing so by collaborating with, among others, fellow male parliamentarians.
Changing the patriarchal nature of Uganda’s political system, which has systematically excluded women from meaningful participation, is a daunting task. But Uganda’s women MPs have scored a number of victories, including the successful introduction of gender-sensitive laws and policies. These were achieved through collaboration with other women’s groups and working with fellow male parliamentarians.
We studied the workings of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association, one of the essential components of Uganda’s women’s movement, the association is a women’s caucus that admits male legislators as allies.
Our research examined how women parliamentarians enhanced their voices in Uganda’s Parliament, and how collaborations with nongovernmental women’s organisations and male legislators furthered that cause. We interviewed 14 long-serving members of the Ugandan parliament, and the women’s association – 10 women and four men.
Members of the association attributed their successes to caucusing as well as developing a collective women’s voice. They also argued that partnerships with male legislators were essential to their success.
A turning tide
Women in Uganda’s Parliament have had to fight hard for their voices to be heard. This is because the marginalisation of female legislators goes back decades. Under the oppressive regimes of former presidents Milton Obote as well as Idi Amin all power became vest in the president. This weighed heavily on the political representation of women in Uganda’s political structures.
The tide appeared to turn in 1986 when the National Resistance Movement came to power. Later, the promulgation of the 1995 constitution also gave women hope for political equality. Initially, the constitution was referred to as the most gender-sensitive in Uganda’s history. This was thanks to a robust affirmative action policy.
Three decades later the policy is criticised for its tokenism .
While the number of women members of parliament increased under the National Resistance Movement, they were denied any real power. Women gained in numerical representation but struggled to match this with impact. An example is the events leading up to the passing of the 1998 Land Act. Efforts by women legislators to introduce a clause that would allow spouses to co-own property was dismissed and subsequently deleted from the final document.
These and other challenges led to the formation of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association.
Amplifying women’s voices
The association’s activities range from lobbying and advocacy to networking, training, and capacity building. The aim is to give women members of parliament space to discuss issues and share experiences from different areas such as politics, economics, science and technology.
To enhance women’s voices and pass pro-woman legislation, members of the association have to actively seek collaboration with male legislators. This includes allowing male legislators to move their bills on the floor of the house as a means to gain broad consensus.
Some of the women parliamentarians we interviewed acknowledged that one of their main roles was to mobilise and lobby the male legislators. Through collaboration with male legislators, women parliamentarians where able to gain support for legislation such as the Domestic Violence Bill , the Children’s (Amendment) Bill, and the bill against female genital mutilation.
To gain support against some of these detrimental patriarchal practices, women needed to work with men legislators to convince their counterparts about the benefits of criminalising such acts.
All the women parliamentarians we interviewed acknowledged that collaboration with male legislators was necessary because there were so few women in Parliament. Men hold 65.3% of all parliamentary seats.
The approach of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association draws from the feminist theory of Bell Hooks a feminist author, professor and social activist who has called for a resurgence of male feminist thought. Men must also be committed to the fight against sexism and patriarchal privilege.
A voice in itself
Our case study shows the power of convincing men to see the value in supporting pro-woman legislation. This is a voice in itself – not just the ability to speak and be heard, but also to influence decisions. Further observation revealed that women’s voices were also enhanced by the type (formal) and post-graduated level of education that women held.
So while some may argue that women collaborating with men is a new dimension of male supremacy. The truth is that in a world made up of men and women, significant progress won’t be made without collaboration.