KAMPALA, UGANDA – When Stella Nyanzi decided to run for a seat to represent Kampala in the Ugandan parliament, the outspoken activist, poet and scholar hoped that voters would embrace her fearless criticisms of the nation’s alleged authoritarian regime.
But when the votes were counted after the January elections, Nyanzi, who proudly bears the nickname “Uganda’s toughest woman”, came in third. The financial cost, the grueling pace of the elections and his lack of political experience were all factors in his defeat, Nyanzi says. But the biggest hurdle of all, she says, for her and other women considering running, may be gender. Even though she lost to another woman, they were vying for one of the many seats reserved for women in a system that she believes unfairly forces them to clash with each other.
Lack of support for women, both in the halls of power and among voters, as well as a lack of role models, discourages many potential candidates from seeking office, says Nyanzi, who had previously been jailed for “cyber and communications harassment. offensive “after criticizing” the oppression, suppression and repression “of the Ugandan president in a graphic poem depicting his birth and his mother’s vagina.
“There are no biographies of successful women in politics accessible to a woman navigating Parliament,” says Nyanzi. “I’m a bold woman and a lot of women aren’t cut that way.”
Nyanzi’s defeat is singular for her high-profile denunciation of the incumbent president and emblematic of the obstacles facing women seeking equal representation in parliament.
Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda
Women have long fought for a greater presence in Parliament: since 1995, the country’s constitution provides for women to hold a specially designated seat in each of the country’s districts. In 2021, 146 women were elected for reserved seats, equal to almost 28% of the total.
But that quota failed to achieve its goal of equalizing the distribution of parliamentary power, instead pitting women against each other for a limited number of “second-class” seats, says Juliet Kushaba, who is achieving a PhD from the Makerere Institute of Social Research.
“There is no flat ground for women in politics,” says Kushaba. “Affirmative action exists, but it does not eliminate other social and structural barriers to women’s participation in parliamentary politics.”
In this year’s elections, only 18 of the 353 non-reserved seats in Parliament went to women. In total, just over a third of Members of Parliament are women, a percentage that has barely moved in the past decade.
“Affirmative action exists, but it does not eliminate other social and structural barriers to women’s participation in parliamentary politics.”Makerere Social Research Institute
President Yoweri Museveni recently named women vice president and prime minister and increased the percentage of women in his cabinet. But critics argue that such appointments primarily serve to fortify a ruler who has just won his sixth consecutive five-year term in a bloody and controversial election that has attracted allegations of fraud.
“Gender representation is not about numbers,” says Cissy Kagaba, executive director of the Uganda Anti-Corruption Coalition, a civil society advocacy organization. “Do we see women in Parliament translating into better services in the areas they come from? Do we see women in Parliament translating into improved livelihoods for basic women? “
Chris Obore, Parliament’s director of communications and public affairs, says female candidates often struggle for financial support comparable to that of male candidates and face harsh judgments and attacks on their character.
“Women don’t have the money and whoever has the money wins the election,” she says. “Some of the actions taken during the campaigns are unworthy of dignity for women and are discouraged from running.”
Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda
Jenipher Kacha Namuyangu, who is serving her fifth term, says “voters are nicer to men”. If, for example, they discover that a woman in office is experiencing a personal challenge, such as a divorce, she says, “the voters will blame her.”
Emily Akullu Omaraca, who has twice run unsuccessfully for a reserved seat, agrees. “The voters want you to show off your husband every time you go to the country,” she says.
During the grueling days of the election campaign, Omaraca felt compelled to appear in her gomesi, a traditional floor-length dress that can be hot and make walking difficult. Her slim stature worked against her, she says, as voters expressed their preference for a more “maternal” candidate over someone who might “flee to Parliament.”
Several organizations are working to change this perception, including the Kampala-based Nonpartisan Forum for Women in Democracy and the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association, of which Mary Harriet Lamunu is executive director. Such groups encourage women to “step out of their comfort zones and occupy their spaces in the various committees to discuss effectively and to understand that the national budget is gender inclusive,” Lamunu says.
He says his organization and others are working on “continuing awareness of the masses about the electoral process so that there is a change in mentality towards women running for free seats.”
Nyanzi, for example, is not discouraged: “I would definitely run again”.
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