The World

Uganda's Pro-Women Program Produces a Dissident

Monday, March 13, 2006

Ugandans voted last month for 69 special female members of parliament as part of the country's lauded gender affirmative-action program. But one prominent female politician says the 10-year-old system has failed to deliver legal gains for women.

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Some See Success

Many say affirmative action has succeeded in bringing the voice of women into the public, and not just in politics.

When the Constitutional Court ruled in a highly politicized case against Besigye in February, four of the five judges were women. The judges dismissed a petition by the state to force Besigye out of the election because he was in jail--arrested for treason, rape and terrorism--when he was nominated. Besigye has denied all allegations and maintains the charges are politically motivated; he has since been cleared of rape, while the treason charges have not yet been tried.

"Credit must go to the government. They have had a program of affirmative action for women and so there have been positive attempts to ensure that there is a broad representation of women in all spheres of national life and this includes our judiciary," said Moses Adriko, an attorney who is head of the Kampala-based Ugandan Law Society.

"On the whole (having a greater number of women in the judiciary) gives you a balanced perspective in the application of the law. It has also given the judiciary more legitimacy within the broader public," he added.

This upbeat view, however, is not shared by Miria Matembe, a former special female member of parliament and minister of ethics and integrity.

In the late 1990s she lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Land Act that ensured equal ownership of the family residence for husband and wife. Even though the amendment passed a vote in parliament, it was missing when the Land Act was promulgated in 1998. In the wake of that, she has become disillusioned about the ability of female politicians to affect policy.

Matembe Expresses Doubts

"I don't think we have achieved much in terms of influencing policy direction," Matembe told Women's eNews.

Apart from the missing amendment of the Land Act, Matembe is disappointed that parliament has not updated its laws on domestic relations, domestic violence and sexual offenses. "If you can't get these four laws in place, then what equality for women are you talking about? A man can still chase away a woman from her home and not have to give her anything according to our law on divorce from 1902."

Election ballot with female candidates.

Matembe said she was forced to leave the government and the National Resistance Movement when she spoke out against corruption. She lost her seat in parliament when running as an independent in the recent election, and does not hold out much hope for the future.

"As far as Uganda is concerned now the gender issue is off," she said, and added that several of the "strong women" of Ugandan politics lost out in the recent election. "What does it matter if I serve on a local council if I can't influence the issues that matter to me?"

Women's activists said one reason women are finding it hard to make an impact on actual lawmaking is the traditional patriarchal nature of society. Female politicians have been ridiculed in parliament and even found themselves sexually harassed by male colleagues.

"Women have been marginalized and sidelined for centuries. To believe that it can be changed in just 20 years is not fair. But I think we have made a good start," said Zziwa.

Extreme Hardships in North

Although Uganda is often singled out for its achievements on women's issues, many women in this East African country face extreme hardships, especially in the war-torn north. Here the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army has been terrorizing the civilian population since the early 1990s and is notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to commit atrocities against their own communities.

Almost 2 million people have fled their homes to live in special camps for internally displaced people, although tens of thousands of children opt to walk many kilometers every day to sleep in special night shelters in the cities to avoid being kidnapped.

"I can't stay at home at night because the rebels burn huts and abduct people," said Florence Akonyo, a 17-year-old who has spent every night of the last four years in a night shelter for girls near the bus station in the town of Gulu.

A study conducted with the support of UNICEF in 2005, "Suffering in Silence," found that rape and sexual abuse of children are among the most common forms of sexual violence in one of the largest camps close to Gulu. It also said that female teens 13 to 17 years old are most frequently reported as victims of sexual violence.

"I don't like walking when it is very late," Akonyo said. "I fear the bad boys in groups. They can rape you. And even the soldiers. If they get you, they ask for money and, if you don't have it, they will kill you if you are a man or rape you if you are a woman."

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Anna Koblanck is the Africa correspondent for the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter and a freelance writer. She is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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