It was meant to be a temporary intervention, an emergency response if you please, as a measure to the glaring gender disparity in the 1990s. More than a decade later, we still have affirmative action firmly in place. What is to be said after a decade of affirmative action? Is it time to celebrate; should we stop and take stock or continue on the same trajectory?
Women representation is at 34 per cent in Parliament and 40 per cent in local councils today, compared to the single digits before affirmative action.
One can say it is delivering on having, more women join leadership positions. More girls have also stayed in school as a result of affirmative policies. But has the strategy really done for women what it was supposed to do?
Rita Achiro, the executive director of Uganda Women’s Network (Uwonet), says there are things we cannot deny.
“It has indeed brought change to the two areas it was aimed at increasing women and girls’ participation in –politics and education. It has increased women’s participation in leadership highly.
“The numbers of girls enrolling in school and not just primary and secondary but tertiary has gradually increased over the years. You hear more on health rights during national discourse, sexual and reproductive health all because we have more women in leadership,” she says.
Jacqueline Asiimwe Mwesige a lawyer and rights activist thinks if you look at it purely from the point of putting more women in politics following the one woman MP per district and a third of women in local government guidelines, then we can say affirmative action has achieved success.
“In that sense, affirmative action has been good in raising the number of women in politics and changing the political landscape to the one we are more accustomed to. We are more acclimatised to having women leaders,” she said.
Aside from the direct results, there are more benefits that arise from the change of mindset towards women as leaders, which was made possible by affirmative action.
“Giving women a platform contributed to changing mindsets,” says Achiro. An example of a benefit of this shift in the society’s mindset is more women running for and clinching direct seats in politics, those outside the allocated affirmative action seats.
From here, the criticisms on the strategy begin. Apparently, we cannot count these as great strides towards equality. More like a few shuffling steps.
“Beyond the numbers, little has been done to make these spaces (leadership and education) truly inclusive of women,” says Asiimwe.
And herein lays one flaw of the strategy. The spaces we are pushing to get more women through affirmative action into are not necessarily friendly to women.
Asiimwe refers to a study by ISIS WICCE last year that showed political spaces are still hostile to women. The space is still highly patriarchal, women in these spaces face a lot of sexual harassment,” said Asiimwe.
Other areas that need work
Affirmative action may have been an absolute need, at the time it was introduced, but time seems to have proven it is not the only thing women need.
A myriad things, stand in the way of the Ugandan woman trying to make her way and or maintain her place in leadership and power positions. And it appears these were forgotten while we were busy focusing on affirmative action. And this has out us at a disadvantage as women.
“Yes, we have affirmative action, but we have not yet systematically looked at all other barriers affecting women’s participation. And these range from community attitude, domestic violence, sexual harassment, to even how women perceive themselves,” says Achiro.
The barriers are real and women participation remains very low outside of the affirmative action. If you removed the affirmative action, the percentage of women participation would drop drastically. “In the case of parliament, we would have less than 15 members,” Achiro continues.
The existing political structures seem to have also affected the effectiveness of affirmative action, or rather impedes women graduating to participating over and beyond affirmative action targets.
For instance party nominations still heavily tend to favour men for the direct seats. “If they do not conform, open up more opportunities for more women, we will stay stuck at the same number we are able to get from the affirmative action,” explains Achiro.
Monetisation of politics still locks out a lot of women out of leadership spaces. “Plus affirmative action has been in some instances captured to achieve political ends for men,” says Mwesige.
An indicator of how affirmative action has come short in this area is the still widespread tendency for women to only contest for the positions created by affirmative action, eschewing going head to head with the men in the direct seats, all these years later.
As a way forward, Matembe says maybe affirmative action should be reworked to target the women and girls in rural areas.
The outgoing gender minister Mary Karooro Okurut agrees, and adds one more area that should be considered. “I have seen it work to increase girls’ enrollment in public universities, what is happening in the private institutions? I would like to see it spread to private entities too. To open up that space for more girls,” she says.
To Achiro, a review of who the strategy benefits is not enough, it is also time to think up another strategy. Affirmative action per se will not work. Asiimwe is of like mind: “Affirmative Action is just one path towards equality. We still need to address the underlying attitudes by both women and men that treat women as less than men.”
As we are still finding this path as a country it is not yet Uhuru. The task remains to find ways to make all spheres equal.
“You cannot institute affirmative action in an unequal country and then hope that women will work wonders,” said Mwesige.
For the time being though, affirmative action is still ours, our opportunity as women and girls to play catch up, and as long as inequality is still deeply rooted in our society, Ugandan women need any boost they can get.
As Achiro puts it, “We should not apologise for it. We owe no one an apology for benefiting from affirmative action!”
A CALL TO REVIEW IT
It is not yet time to do away with it though. The way forward seem to be in reviewing it, long overdue considering it was instituted only as an emergency measure to give women and girls and indeed other marginalised groups a much needed shove to catch up with the men.
Former Minister of Gender, politician and activist Dr Miria Matembe is one of those who think a review of affirmative action is in order. “You cannot continue with a temporary measure without reviewing it. I think it should be assessed and new guidelines set on who it benefits,” said Matembe.
The reason she gives is one that has been raised severally. There has been some concerns that some of the measures in affirmative action are missing those who need it most. The example is the 1.5 points added to girls and aimed to boost the numbers of girls joining public universities. It is feared to be benefitting girls who would still have passed, with or without the extra points, in and around Kampala for example, and doing little for the girls in the rural areas who need it most.