The quota policy has not necessarily made it easier for Ugandan women to be elected on open seats. (Photo: Siri Gloppen)

A record-high number of women-friendly laws were adopted in Uganda from 2006-2011, the time of the Eighth national parliament. The record is no coincidence. It is the result of targeted political work, activism and strategic smartness by Ugandan female parliamentarians and their supporters in the women’s movement, according to Vibeke Wang, senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute.

-Uganda’s reserved seat policy has undoubtedly had an important symbolical effect. Female politicians and leaders are no longer seen as something out of the ordinary. The quota policy has led to a normalization of women in top-level positions, she says.

Opening up political space for women
Wang recently defended her doctoral thesis “Operating in the shadow of the executive: Women’s substantive representation in the Uganda Parliament”, on the country’s quota policy and female parliamentarians representative roles. Uganda adopted a reserved seat policy in 1989. The quota policy was partly initiated from above by the NRM, but also originated as a result of pressure exerted by the women’s movement, which in turn was encouraged and inspired by developments in the international community. The post-conflict climate has also been identified as crucial in opening up political space for women in Uganda.Women had played a crucial role during the guerilla war, fighting side by side with men. In this way women demonstrated that they could play an integral part in the process of political transformation. As the men left their villages to fight, women were thrust into new roles and situations. The NRM leadership recognized women’s contribution to the National Resistance Army’s victory, and was also in desperate need of popular support. One of the key reasons for the NRM to introduce quotas was to create legitimacy for the regime and embark on a process of nation-building.

Even so, not much happened in terms of pro-women legislation during the first parliaments after the adoption of the 1995 constitution and the formalization of the new political order known as the Movement system. Uganda was, and in many respects still is, a very patriarchal society. Parliament also worked on a range of comprehensive issues which made it more difficult for the female parliamentarians to advance women-friendly legislation and politics. In particular the years between 2001-2006 were characterized by a tense political debate. One of the most controversial debates at the time was the proposal to change the constitution in order to let president Museveni be president for an unrestricted period of time.

Yet, in the Eighth parliament from 2006-2011, the female parliamentarians gained momentum. In part an institutional flux made it possible for female parliamentarians to put women’s rights on the agenda. But most of all, strategic smartness and hard work by the women’s organization in parliament have paved the way for more women-friendly legislation.

Choosing the right allies
From 2006, female parliamentarians working through the women’s caucus in parliament have got attention as well as support for a wide range of topics. They have achieved this by cooperating with women’s rights activists inside and outside parliament. The connections to women’s organisations in civil society are strong, and they have also been able to attract funding from foreign non-governmental organisations and donors. Their ability and will to agree on issues and viewpoints across party lines have been decisive.

-Working on gender issues and women-friendly legislation, the women’s caucus in the Ugandan parliament has chosen to cooperate closely with male supporters. Women have lobbied male colleagues to advocate for issues and proposals of particular relevance and importance to women. For example the important law proposal against female mutilation was urged forward by a male parliamentarian, says Wang

When a well-respected male parliamentarian, who was also a medical doctor, presented facts about female genital mutilation, they were seen as evidence that testified to the grave consequences and suffering caused by female genital mutilation, rather than women’s activists attempts to break tradition. The law proposal against female mutilation was also actively pushed forward by Rebecca Kadaga, the parliament’s deputy speaker, self-declared women’s activist and a key actor in the Ugandan parliament.

Choosing the right tactics
The breakthrough was not only a matter of choosing the right allies, it was also a matter of choosing the rights tactics. Reform of family law has been a constant battle for Ugandan women’s rights activists and female parliamentarians. After years of getting nowhere, they decided to advocate changes step by step. What was originally an omnibus bill, the Domestic Relations Bill, covering all aspects of gender and family relations, was split into several less comprehensive draft laws, like the Domestic violence bill which was enacted in 2010. This was a clever move which enabled women friendly achievements in this area

 -Women’s rights activists and female parliamentarians were trapped in a standstill trying to reform the family law. By splitting the omnibus bill in smaller parts, they could concentrate on the least controversial proposal which was easier to get support for. The experiences and victories in this process have inspired them to work for further changes also in more politically sensitive areas, says Wang.

Although female parliamentarians have won several victories during the last decade, there are still important issues to be solved. The Domestic violence act was not as controversial as pending legislation on marriage and divorce, neither was the law proposal against female genital mutilation. Also, the quota policy has not necessarily made it easier for women to be elected on open seats.

-Women running for an open seat are often confronted with the reserved seat policy. They are asked why they run for an open seat when women have seats on their own. So although the quota policy has had an important effect in changing the perceptions of women in leading positions, so far it has not necessarily made it easier for women to run for open seat elections, and hardly any women successfully cross over from reserved seats to open seats , says Wang.

Against this backdrop; how are they going to win the battle of family law?

-They most likely need to continue like they have with their hard work and cunning strategic alliances. The expression ‘time is on their side’ is somewhat of a cliché. Nonetheless, I think this is what is happening in Uganda. Women’s activism and gender equality is becoming more accepted. Chances are good that female parliamentarians and women’s activists in Uganda will succeed in time, in achieving further reform of family law, says Wang.

Vibeke Wang

Senior Researcher and Coordinator: Gender Politics