In Uganda, a Women’s Place is Everywhere

While watching the recent inauguration proceedings, something remarkable was going on. More than 100 women were sworn in for the 10th Parliament, plus a woman as Speaker of the House.  If you are not Ugandan, you are probably thinking, “Wow, for an African country, that’s impressive!” And if you are Ugandan, your response is probably more like, “Um, okay, why is that newsworthy?”

Yep, more than 100 women in Parliament and a woman as Speaker, that’s just another day in Uganda! Clearly, it’s a good time to be a woman politician in Uganda.

The West often looks at women in Africa and sees unequal access to education and healthcare, limited rights to own land and property, and little access to political and economic empowerment. These problems are real in many countries, but for 30 years Uganda has stridently taken a different path.

In 1995, Uganda passed several laws that mandated at least one woman per district in Parliament, plus 20% of seats reserved for representation of various constituencies, including youth, workers, the disabled, and Uganda People’s Defense Forces. Those are just the seats reserved exclusively for women. In fact, as women Parliamentarians like to point out, those numbers are just the minimum number of women in Parliament. The actual number is higher, and has increased every year since the law was enacted.

Rebecca Kadaga, The Speaker of Parliament, was unanimously elected by the new Parliament, but even this was nothing new for Ugandans. She’s been Speaker since 2011, and was Deputy Speaker for two terms before that. Widely respected and known as a powerful force in development for women and all Ugandans, her leadership proves the success of Uganda’s political affirmative action, as she started her Parliamentary career in 1989 as a Member of Parliament for the Kamuli District Women’s Constituency. The former lawyer also served as Minister of State for Regional Cooperation, Minister of State for Communication and Aviation and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs.

The real shattering of Uganda’s glass ceiling came in 1994, when President Yoweri Museveni appointed Dr. Specioza Wandera Kazibwe as his Vice President. Serving until 2003, she was the first woman in Africa to rise to such political heights. Her service was groundbreaking, but perhaps equally so was her resignation. In the midst of a difficult divorce and accusations of her husband’s physical abuse, she found it impossible to continue her duties. For many years, her political activities made her a role model, but her frank admission started a national conversation about an extremely important topic that had previously been almost taboo. Today, this powerful woman is the top UN official on AIDS in Africa and is favored by many to be the next Chairperson of the Africa Union.

Women hold several ministerial positions within the Ugandan government, serve as Ambassadors at the most prestigious Ugandan embassies in Washington and London and others, and in the most recent presidential election, a woman, Maureen Faith Kyalya Waluube, was a candidate.  And proving that women in government is commonplace in Uganda, her mother was a member of Parliament and currently is an Ambassador.

The numbers of women attaining high levels in government is impressive, but what is often overlooked is the most important aspect of Uganda’s women’s empowerment initiatives: building a strong base of empowered women who can become tomorrow’s leaders.

Women in leadership roles don’t just start at the national level. They are also guaranteed a minimum of 30% of all elective political offices at the critical grassroots level of local government. These positions, which are often more involved with the needs of the local population, are helping to grow a generation of women who are politically smart and engaged.

Building this generation takes more than quotas and experience at local levels. It takes an entire shift in national priorities. It starts with universal primary education, and especially the push to get girls in school. Today, Uganda has succeeded so well in this that it is at the top for this category in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2015. In fact, 93% of Uganda’s girls attend primary school, whereas only 90% of Ugandan boys are enrolled. In 1990, Makerere University led the way with instituting a policy of affirmative action aimed at increasing women’s enrollment. The results have been impressive, with approximately 5% of all Ugandan men attending university accompanied by 4% of women.

Uganda’s commitment to women’s empowerment is best exemplified by celebrations on International Women’s Day. Top government officials and dignitaries lead the celebrations, which like International Women’s Day events in many countries, begins with the national anthem. After that comes something unique to Uganda: the Ugandan Women’s Anthem. It is an ode to the importance and leadership of Ugandan women, to the “proud mothers of the nation/The backbone without which, it can never stand,” and “Leading, Leading…To develop Uganda.”

Remarkable, and yet for Uganda, commonplace.

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