During the first Presidential debate, Maureen Kyalya Waluube – who was the only woman in the 2016 Uganda Presidential race – said that some of the women in power are “dummies.”
I suspect some of those women might have been horrified, especially given that it was coming from a fellow woman, one who has “been” in power at that (Kyalya has served as a Presidential Advisor). In Uganda, as in much of the world, women participation remains an important issue, and the manifestos of the candidates reflected this. A look through them shows that women’s issues featured prominently. For Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye – two of the contestants for the presidency – it was an evaluation of women participation post-1995. The most important concern on the women question was, and remains: How are we doing beyond numbers?
Twenty years ago, in 1995, Uganda got a constitution that for the first time in the country’s history took extra effort to cater for women. Among the many women-friendly provisions was the allocation of women seats in Parliament- for every district, for example, a woman representative, referred to as Woman MP, is elected. There are also seats reserved for women in the election of MPs to represent youths, the army, and workers.
The recent campaigns of these woman representatives were likely filled with promises for female constituents. They would be the voice in the legislature – and when they meet in their Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association (UWOPA), the conversation will be about women’s rights and women-specific issues.
It is important to note though that these representatives are not two-dimensional characters. Many of them also belong to party structures and thus serve several masters; their constituencies and their parties, for example. Some of them are interested in more than women’s rights, and have every right to devote power and attention to other facets of the lives that women and other citizens lead in this country. Still, some of them are guardians of the patriarchal system- and used woman-negative language on the campaign trail against their opponents. Just because they are representatives of women, does not mean they are beyond mistake, beyond reproach, and are what we have fought for: a voice for women.
Additionally, several of those women representatives have since 1995 either been appointed to or contested for even more prominent positions; Specioza Kazibwe was Vice President, and Rebecca Kadaga is the current Speaker of Parliament. These elevations are cited as achievements in the women’s movement, and there is hardly any room for questions.
Kyalya’s comment exposes how narrowly we conceive of women in the movement. We assign to them just that role of fighting for women’s rights, and have little tolerance for the fact that many are a product of the same system we fight. We excuse a lot because “they are women.” Did, for example, the appointment of Specioza Kazibwe start the much-needed critique of the position of Vice President in Uganda? Kazibwe, a very capable woman, was underutilized in that position; the problem was the position not her. To start the conversation on the position would most likely, as we know how things go with conversations about women, then start to be about her, and not the position.
To abstain from critique would therefore be safer. That would extend to Kazibwe’s several corruption scandals while in government.
So yes, Kyalya is right when she opened that can of worms. This is not to argue that we have achieved representation. We are not even close to doing that. When Museveni appointed a team of 36 lawyers to represent him in the Constitutional Court case against the presidential election results, all the lawyers were men. Yet, there are many capable women lawyers, and the bench hearing the case also has excellent women judges. The irony of all this is that Museveni’s government has been particularly vocal about how good it has been for women: from appointments to affirmative action policies to funding allocations. So he could not even think of any woman that can be part of his team!? That, now, is a question of representation.
We need to talk about the numbers, but also about what we are getting out of it. It is after all pointless to have women in the room if they never get to participate. When Maureen Kyalya ran for top office, she always emphasized that she was a woman, a mother. Most of the articles written about her- this included- will always cite “only woman running” in 2016 Presidential Elections. But then to be president is to govern an entire country. So in addition to being aware of the fact that her race (for president, not genetic stock) differs from say, Benon Biraaro’s because of her gender, she still has to be judged on how she would be president. My mother told me she wanted to vote for her “because she is a woman” but she was concerned that after hearing her speak, mostly about one region, she would not make a good president.
Kyalya’s former position in government, as a presidential adviser, is one of those that have come under scrutiny for being “largely dependent on political and other interests rather than professional and technical merit or competence.” It is, basically, a dummy position. Her mother, on the other hand, serves as an ambassador to UAE – ambassador positions are usually given to election losers who stood in polls on the ruling party ticket.
Both men and women are appointed to these dummy positions. But, we need to talk about these appointments, especially women who are good at celebrating them – and prone to being constantly reminded by government about the increasing numbers. But what do the increasing numbers really mean? If they mean that women are corruptible, or that women leaders are just collecting salaries for just holding positions, what do we do with that?
It is great that Kyalya started this conversation. It will have to be an uncomfortable conversation that will continuously remind us that women are not two-dimensional characters and neither are their positions. That the women’s movement can handle some critique, and even grow from it. That women are human beings, and yes, “first woman” to do this and “only woman” to do that, can be dummies.
By Rebecca Rwakabukoza from Uganda.