Margaret Zziwa

KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–The day before Election Day in Uganda, special female Member of Parliament Margaret Zziwa was more than busy.

Several of her aides and co-workers were prodding her for meetings, while she was struggling to arrange a doctor’s appointment for her teen daughter who had injured a leg. Gripping her cell phone, Zziwa rushed back and forth through the dark corridor on the fifth floor of the parliament building in central Kampala.

"Politics is generally seen as a game of the leaders, the affluent and the brave. And so it has never been the women’s domain," said Zziwa, who belongs to the government party, the National Resistance Movement.

Zziwa was first elected to the Ugandan parliament in 1996, along with 38 other women on a special gender ticket, after the government enshrined a system for boosting female representation as part of an ambitious program of affirmative action for women in all spheres of national affairs.

Under this system, established in 1995, at least a third of all public offices should be staffed by women. In the parliament elected in 2001, a total of 73 of 304 seats were held by women. Of these 73 women, 56 were elected as special female members of parliament. As the numbers of districts have increased, the number of special seats for women in parliament has now risen to 69. Most of those seats were contested in the Feb. 23 election by several candidates from the ruling National Resistance Movement, the opposition parties and independents.

President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country since 1986, was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote, but the opposition, led by candidate Kizza Besigye, alleges the polls were marred by fraud. Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, was also elected to a regular parliament seat representing the Ruhama district.

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.