Tangible or Superficial Power: The Role of Civil Society in Advancing the Women’s Agenda – Reflection from History

Published By UNNGOF |  July 27, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen – let me start by congratulating our partners FOWODE for consistently holding these Women in Politics Conference.  This should be commendable especially in an era where staying with one agenda is a big challenge.  Before, we speak about the role of civil society in advancing the women’s agenda, let me first make an overarching claim that I will defend as we proceed with this discussion.  The history of Uganda is one where the women’s movement has always played a significant role in social and political life.  The women’s movement is a civil society movement and hence any discussion on the role of civil society has to be located within this context.

Feminist philosophy teaches us to speak from a ‘location’.  I will therefore speak from a location of a male who encountered feminism as a young man in the early 1990s.  I chose to study a Masters Degree in Women Studies because I wanted to explain the contradiction in my own life. I spent 2 years on the Masters programme and indeed I will never regret a moment of the time I spent.  It was a course that was challenging, eye opening and for me greatly refreshing.  I spent several hours reading all kinds of feminists’ texts – from philosophers, historians, to economists and sexuality scholars.  What that work revealed to me then, and is true now, is that the women’s movement had been very central to the making of nation-states across the world and has played crucial role in Uganda.  But it was also true that the women’s movement was not always full recognized.  Therefore, if civil society organizations are truly citizen’s organizations, then their role in advancing the women agenda is not an option but a necessity.

Women and Civil Society in Uganda

Within Uganda, the first ‘local’ formal civil society organization to promote ‘women’s concerns’ and social change was the multi-racial Uganda Council of Women, formed in 1946 (Tripp 2000, Kwesiga 1995, Snyder 1995). But this was preceded by a number of other civil society organizations that were racial in nature.  For example, the British missionary wives formed their own association in 1906, which later opened up to Ugandan women in 1908. The Red Cross, although formed in 1918, was only able to open up to African women in the 1930s. Such mutations coloured the early Women’s Movement with efforts to minimize difference in organizations that had been formed on the basis of race taking center-stage.  Many women are remembered for working to establish linkages between the local Ugandan women and the foreign women.  Sugra Visram, a Ugandan woman of Indian decent was one such woman who embodies the efforts of trying to link women from different backgrounds.  However, one of the most notable efforts was the formation of a civil society organization the (Young Women’s Christian Association) YWCA and the Uganda Council of Women (Tripp 2000). These organizations that had started early before Independence were able to live through the test of time resisting different regimes and working to improve the lot of women through various initiatives. Yet, as Kwesiga (1995) notes, after independence in 1962 there was very little support for women’s organizing.  Karungi (1995) argues that when Amin came to power in 1971, he initially promoted women’s rights in a populist move, but then subsequently banned women’s organizations.

Women’s Movement in Amin’s Era

In fact, one of the most depressing times for women’s rights was during Amin’s regime.  The regime banned women from wearing miniskirts, and any woman found in a miniskirt would be molested and sometimes even raped.  There were other outrageous pronouncements like stopping women from wearing perfumes and make-up of any nature as conditions that the state imposed on women.  “Unmarried women” were banned from the streets of Kampala and military officers would go out of their way and try to force all women who were single to get married, usually forcing themselves on these women.  Amin’s regime is also known to have banned all women’s civil society organizations that were related to the promotion of the welfare of women and suggested that all organizations come together in one umbrella – known as the National Council for Women. This was intended to be a state-controlled national machinery.  Institutions like the YWCA clubs that were carrying out community work were threatened with the danger of closure and abandoning the many women in the countryside who had come to enjoy the emancipation the YWCA even before hearing of the Mexico global women’s meetings.

Women like the national leaders of the YWCA at that time were threatened with arrest and execution if they continued to organize.  Many institutions died off completely with a few of them surviving the bad times. However, the YWCA continued its work among women underground, mobilizing and expanding its membership in times when this could have earned all its leaders death. In sum, Amin era was one of destruction of some of the most prestigious achievements that women had attained through the colonial and post-colonial times.

The Obote Regime and the Rejuvenation of the Women’s Movement

The Obote II regime did not offer any better prospects, since the period from the overthrow of Amin and the coming of Obote were marked with regimes of terror that came as quickly as night and day.  The masculinist and patriarchal state apparatus was lost in the struggle for Presidency and little work was done to bring women’s concerns to the political table.  However, in all the chaos women continued to organize and one of the many notable successes of the time was the ability of women during the brutal regime of Obote II managing to compose a women’s national anthem.  This was composed by the Late Professor Rose Mbowa a lecturer in the Department of Music Dance and Drama at Makerere University.  The national anthem was sang for the first time on the International Women’s Day and was then accompanied by a moving speech from the then First Lady – Miria Obote.   She encouraged women to organize and stay firm in their struggle against women’s oppression and political oppression that were characteristic of Uganda at the time.  From then on the 8th March – International women’s day was entered onto the Ugandan calendar as a public holiday in a regime where no one would have expected to succumb to the demands of women (Ankrah 1987).  Today the 8th March has changed its face with women activists using it as a day to mourn the losses that women have been suffered because of the enduring tokenism to women that the subsequent regimes have decided to cling to.

The short Okello regime, as discussed by Ankrah (1987) is remembered for having seen the first Women’s March for Peace. Women pointed out the suffering of the girls in the notorious Luwero Triangle and the unsafe streets of Kampala, were rape and the mistreatment of women at road blocks was the order of the day and all this was going on unnoticed. These struggles and many more illustrate the ways in which women in Uganda stayed very visible in the political struggles in a country whose history has not been very favorable to them.

The Women’s Movement and NRM-Movement Politics: The Chicken and Egg Debate?

The National Resistance Movement’s egalitarian rhetoric led many women to support the National Resistance Army during the liberation war of the early 1980s. With the arrival of the National Resistance Movement government in 1986, Museveni ensured women’s political representation by establishing the position of ‘Secretary for Women’s Affairs’ at every level of the Resistance Council hierarchy, from village to the national level. A populist and vote-winning move, it enabled women to have representation at every level of government. Immediately after the coup, there were 39 women district representatives in the National Resistance Council, which was a powerful force for change (Tripp, 1994). Such positive discrimination resulted in women parliamentarians making up 17% of the legislative body, along with similar proportions in other elite Government and civil service positions. This number increased further with the parliamentary elections in 1996. Ottemoeller (1999) argues that women’s increased political visibility was partly the result of vote-seeking by politicians who could no longer afford to cultivate traditional sources of patronage. In an era of economic liberalization and austerity they could ‘secure support from women with relatively low-cost symbolic political initiatives’ (ibid: 87).

The NRM’s relationship to the Women’s Movement has therefore been a complicated and very enigmatic relationship. The NRM’s suppression of political parties and promotion of women’s interests in public politics were seen as very significant elements for the survival of the Movement ideology. The NRM found women organizing against the brutality that was being meted out on them during the brutal regimes of Obote and Okello.  The NRM grabbed the opportunity of the day and formed an alliance with women activists as a way of showing solidarity to all the different interest groups that had fought dictatorship and murderous regimes. The solidarity with Women’s Movement was also attractive because of the possibility of the all-inclusiveness characteristics it exhibited. Here was a political organ (the NRM) which felt it was important to suppress political parties as a way of “neutralizing ethnicity” (Muhereza and Otim 1997).  The obvious ally in the project of “ethnic neutralization” was the all-inclusive Women’s Movement. But also women who had fought during the bush war could not be relegated to the political ghetto.  It was therefore very strategic for the NRM to allow for women’s presence in public politics especially since there were many women who had contributed variously to the success of the struggle. The Women’s Movement gained visibility and made gains and the NRM gained acceptability and made gains.

The alliance was made – women and the NRM became ‘bedfellows’ principally because of refusing to collapse their political project into the realm of ethnicity and also ensuring that for the first time the books of law recognized the contribution of women to public politics.  Above all, the Women’s Movement had refused to become an appendage of political parties during the days of party politics.

This was quickly reinterpreted to mean that the Women’s Movement had totally rejected party politics. The Women’s Movement was therefore very instrumental in the process of raising the profile of the NRM and the NRM was very instrumental in raising the profile of the Women’s Movement. The Women’s Movement quoted the gender statistics as gains of women during the NRM regime and the NRM regime quoted gender statistics as gains of NRM politics!  It was there for all to see – the near nothing numbers of the mid-1980s in political representation to the over 30% presence in the Parliament, the 30% presence in the Local Governments and the over 20% representation in the civil service over a period of less than 10 years? – where in the world would you find such a liberal regime? – was the rhetorical question on the NRM’s lips!

Many schools of thought have therefore gained currency about whose gains these are.  Some have attributed them to the presidential patronage of Museveni the President.  Yet others have attributed these gains to the supportive environment that has even written affirmative action into the Ugandan books of law. Both have been very contested schools of thought, with different activists and scholars bringing out the difficulty of reading the gains of the Women’s Movement during the NRM (Oloka Onyango, 1998).  The explicit depiction of the weariness of opposition politicians to the NRM position is articulated in the Kawanga Ssemwogere Manifesto in 1996.  A Presidential Candidate during the 1996 elections, Ssemwogerere argued that, it was a very misleading move for the NRM to resort to “tokenism, patronization and regimentation of the marginalized groups in the name of affirmative action (Kawanga Ssemwogere 1996 cited in Ahikire, 2000).

Many issues went into entrenching the Women’s Movement into the public politics of Uganda. Women in big numbers stood for political office during the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections that led to the writing of the new Constitution of Uganda. When women reached the CA, they continued organizing, forming a powerful lobby group known as the Women’s Caucus of the CA. In what could be read as a patriarchal tradition, a woman was appointed, Vice Chairperson of the CA.  This was a Professor of Geography and the first Head of the Department of Women Studies in Makerere University – Professor Victoria Mwaka. However, the women in the CA took these gains seriously and through the CA Women Caucus, programmes for sensitization on gender and women issues were organized. Gender concerns were identified in the draft Constitution.  The National Association of Women in Uganda set up a gender information center at the place where the delegates met and this was supposed to help them identify and push for some of the critical gender issues in the Constitution.  To some extent a lot of this was gained through the many provisions that are truly gender sensitive (Snyder 2000).  Up to 12 substantive aspects supportive of gender inequality were all written into the Constitution.

The blurred division between women representing women and women politician representing constituencies led to a number of other blurred positions during the Constitution making process.  One of the most notable controversies was the reluctance of the women’s caucus to have a position on the political system that should prevail in the country.  To the question – should it be multi-party politics or movement politics?  The caucus chose “none of the above”.  Although, as it turned out in everyday discourse, many of the women felt that it was better to have the Movement system, since it ensured that “women have peace”, as exemplified in the 1996 elections where the women’s vote for Museveni was popularly described as a “vote for peace”.

The sense one makes of this sketch on women in the public sphere is one that shows that there was some kind of state and non-state feminism taking root in Uganda possibly fueled by global discourses.  The global/transnational discourse was quickly packaged, defined and deployed for use in all spheres.  NGO development projects were very much part and parcel of the political projects.  One could see more policies towards working within state spaces than the creation of autonomous spaces by the women’s movement.

The post-1986 Women’s Movement is therefore one that has civil society and state spaces intertwined.  Many of the leaders of the Movement were nurtured in the women’s movement.  What still needs to be understood is the impact of the transition of the movement politics to multi-party politics.  The strength of the women’s movement as a collective is now questionable especially because of the historical reality above.  The women in political parties also are not using the women’s movement as a platform for political organizing of women.  Civil society organizations that were very much instrumental in the women’s movement during the movement system of government in many ways stand on the sides as they watch the emerging challenges in the multiparty system that even include the demonization of opposition leaders. The new relation with the state where ‘engaging in politics’ is a panacea for civil society has removed life both from the women’s movement and civil society organization as a whole.

The question that remains now is, what role should civil society organizations play in advancing the women’s agenda.  I would argue that times have significantly changed and there are about 4 areas which can no longer be ignored if a women’s agenda is to be promoted and I would argue that advancing the women’s agenda will require:

  1. Feminist taught all of us that the personal is political.  In a multiparty dispensation where space for civil society organizing is narrowing it is important to ensure that collective efforts to challenge all forms of oppression that limit citizen organizing are expanded.  We need to understand that as civil society we cannot shy away from politics – because the personal is political and politics is a gendered process.  The reason co-ownership clause was a struggle, maternal mortality is high, domestic violence is still an issue are all political issues of a personal nature.  Shying away from politics is allowing those who want to oppress women and men do so with impunity.  This is a role that civil society should play in advancing the women agenda.
  2. CSOs should now remember that numbers matter – to challenge power – patriarchy and oppression and all forms of injustice requires that we work collectively and in large numbers because indeed – ‘injustice to one is injustice to all’.  CSOs must muster their numbers as a core strengthen to advance the women’s agenda.  In politics numbers matter.
  3. CSOs will have to appreciate that the constraints to the women’s agenda is like a ‘tumor’ in the body and not an ailment outside the body.  When the tumor is in the body the whole body participates in the treatment regimen for the body – the legs walk, the eyes see he medicine and the mouth assists in swallowing the medicine – a women agenda should therefore be a Ugandan agenda that is focusing on promoting – the idea of the ‘citizen is central’.
  4. CSOs should work on their own quality standards – so that we are surgeons that approach the theatre with no germs – in order for the women’s agenda to be advanced our collective generational bottlenecks is about ensuring that we care about our internal strength and quality as NGOs.  We therefore need to embrace the NGO Quality Assurance Mechanism (QuAM).  This is because going forward the heydays when women organizations all the patrons who were in both government and civil society are long gone.  The current generational challenge is related to the quality of organizations we have formed and if they effectively serve the constituencies they work with.


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