By Ivan Okuda
Women who challenge men for the open seat political offices are forced to put up with dirty challenges ranging from wild religious propaganda, sexual stigmatization, accusations of going against social norms and whipping up religious hate speech against them, a study by the Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE) has found.
Though Uganda has made commendable steps in ensuring that women take up leadership positions, the road to fully opening up Open Seat positions for women is still littered with roadblocks that are exacerbated by a patriarchal society and deeply rooted cultural and social misconceptions.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Report of 2019, after a series of by-elections that followed the 2016 general elections, women constituted 34.9% of Uganda’s legislature.
Impressively, Uganda was ranked 32nd out of the 191 surveyed states, posting 160 females of the 459 legislators.
However, by 2019, there were only 20 female legislators who were directly elected to represent Open Seat constituencies in the 10th Parliament. These make only 4.6% of the membership of the entire 10th Parliament.
The situation is not any better for local councils.
According to the findings of a ground-breaking report titled: Women Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Experiences from the 2016 Elections in Uganda, at the local council level, there are only three female district chairpersons out of Uganda’s 126 districts.
The female LC5 chairpersons are from Kanungu, Kole, and Kumi districts.
The study was conducted by the Forum for Women in Democracy (Fowode), a non-partisan women caucus that advocates for women empowerment.
According to the 2018 Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) report, only 0.01% of women are serving as Local Council III Chairpersons.
In the local government structure, Local Council III Chairpersons are very important in decision making as they also act as Division Mayors.
The above statistics certainly make for sore reading in the eyes of those fighting for women to take up political spaces that are misconceived to be a preserve for men.
To understand why women still find it difficult to contest and win the Open Seats, the Fowode report discovered that the reasons range from the over-commercialization of politics, demand from voters for female politicians to prove their moral aptness and other patriarchal misconceptions.
“Women in local councils and Parliament decried the increasing commercialization of politics. They pointed out the exorbitant costs required to fund different election cycles such as party primaries and general elections as well as voters who increasingly demand for money from candidates. The electoral campaign costs were noted as a big hindrance to women’s political aspirations,“ the report says.
On the matter of female politicians who contest for Open Seats being morally questioned, the report noted that: “Women unanimously raised the issue of proving their moral aptness to voters in electoral and post-election political phases. Women, unlike men, are expected to prove beyond doubt, using religious, cultural, and traditional lenses that they are morally suitable to be in public politics.”
“Questions arose from voters on whether a female candidate was ‘properly’ married, who their husbands are, their marriage status, whether they promise to remain with their husbands once they joined politics or whether their marital status will not hinder political openness and inclusiveness,“ says the report.
Such questions, indicated the report, can only be termed as ‘politics of morality’, and are often played on women’s bodies, sexuality and demonstrate the expected gender role socialization.
A study titled: Inclusion and Exclusion: The case of Gender Equality in 2016 General Elections, attributed the marginality of women on Open Seats to the exclusionary practices in politics which conceptualize power as limited in supply.
The Fowode report shined a more comprehensive spotlight on the obstacles female politicians face when they attempt to contest for open seats that are perceived to be ring-fenced for men.
“These constructions of Open Seats as men’s ordained spaces draw on different forms of public patriarchies. They hint on broader religious, traditional and cultural discourses and regulate how women and men are perceived in the politics of Uganda, “the report says.
It adds that: “Indeed, across the interviews, the idea of history, religion, and culture and how these constrain the possibility of women’s political leadership, especially contesting against men, kept emerging,“ reads the report.
With few women mustering the courage to take on the social, cultural and religious stereotypes to challenge men on the open seats, there are few and negligible female politicians who occupy such positions.
Interviews conducted by various respondents confirmed that female candidates find it intensely rigorous to contest on Open Seats and it is viewed as a direct form of political resistance when women who largely reside in the margins of political decision-making processes confront this marginalization.
However, the war is not lost yet.
There are female politicians who have been able to dare and successfully vie for positions that are often perceived to be a preserve for men, further demonstrating the potential of women’s leadership and challenging the myth that some positions are ring-fenced for men.
For some women, being able to dare and vie for a position that is often misconceived as men’s seat and winning is not only a demonstration of women’s leadership potential but also a critical step towards challenging the myths around Open Seats as exclusive political spaces for male participation.
Nakaseke County North MP Syda Bbumba is a living example of women who have consistently, and successfully challenged men for Open Seats.
Ms Bbumba has successfully contested for the seat four times, defeating male contestants in all the four elections.
Open Seats being occupied by female politicians like Ms Bbumba, comes with its own advantages as it provides a space for women to have numbers in the political arena in as far as it offers an alternative space for women to enter politics, argues the report.
In order to dispel the misconception that affirmative action is a favor for women and Open Seats are reserved for men, the Fowode report urges Parliament to “provide conceptual clarity on the labeling, mandate, and modalities of electing women on the Affirmative Action seats.”
Participants who were worried about the misconceptions surrounding the Open Seat positions also urged Fowode and other women’s rights organisations to partner with Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) to demand from Parliament a review and update on women-specific political representation to ensure that there is no perpetuation of inequality based on sex.
Female politicians gave graphic accounts of the propaganda they suffered when they contested for the Open Seats, with most of it serving to whip up the supposed superiority of male politicians.
Aruu North MP Achiro Lucy Otim, (Independent), said in an interview that educated and seasoned male politicians she had contested with, crafted and popularised a propaganda which reminded her that by vying for an Open Seat, she was “going to a wrong toilet, a men’s toilet!”
In Kumi, Christine Apolot, an LCV Chairperson shared a similar experience during her campaigns.
Ms Apolot narrated how, during the campaigns, voters condemned her for standing against men saying that “it is against the will of God for a woman to lead a man.” “Kumi will go against the will of God and the Bible, they chanted.”
In Pallisa, Atuko Jane Frances, the LCIII chairperson of Agule Sub-County, told us how her opponents argued that “A menstruating woman cannot be sent to sit on the men’s ‘chair’.
In Buikwe District, the male LCV chairperson told us “people will say that women who contest for Open Seats are encroaching on the men’s seat: “Baba balumbye ekifo eky’abasajja.”
In effect, Affirmative Action has produced its own exclusive enclave and normalized it as a women’s space, in opposition to men. This kind of polarity of Affirmative Action as the sanctioned space for women’s political engagement and men as actors in directly elected seats is deeply embedded in the everyday political narratives and propaganda across all the communities we visited in the country.