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Takatso Joanne Mohlakoana

Strong-Women Leadership in Africa: How women parliamentarians are changing the policy making in Uganda

Author: Takatso Joanne Mohlakoana (2019)

Takatso Joanne Mohlakoana holds a master's degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. This In Focus article is excerpt from her master thesis, discussed in July 2019 under the supervision of prof. Paolo De Stefani. 


Women, making up half of the world’s population, find themselves outside of the chambers which determine their social, political and economic surroundings even in the 21st century. Post-conflict states, however, have been making strides in their ever increasing inclusion of women, committing to power-sharing models to integrate women to the legislature in great numbers. Nevertheless, much has been questioned about the impact and policy outcomes of women’s inclusion, particularly in states which lack in the entrenchment of democratic principles as found in the formations of governance in post-conflict states. If it is so that the incorporation of women may lead to transformative governance, the impacts of the inclusion of women to the political realm can ascribe power to transform such political arrangements, especially in assessing whether they are able to deter the human rights evasive actions within semi-autocratic regimes.

While women all over the world have faced trying and often retrograding challenges to their political emancipation and human rights status, often women in post-conflict societies, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, have found themselves “fast-tracked” into power after socially devastating circumstances such as high-mortality wars. Multiple factors can be attributed to this success, considering the role of women’s movements and the politicizing of women’s issues over time and the political international tendency towards democratic values. Women have been organizing internationally and the overall trend towards respecting women’s human rights and the promotion of their political participation was slowly rooting itself in international law principles and instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women which set precedent for the aims of promoting women to decision-making within the public space. Regionally, the African continent took it upon itself to formulate and promote the ratification of the Maputo Protocol, a document which focuses on attributing comprehensive special rights to women, to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. I will focus on the case study of Uganda, a country which has until relatively recently experienced extraordinarily high levels of violence and state-endorsed repression. Nevertheless, as it currently promotes some democratic innovations in a state of fragile peace the country boasts a 34.9% of women in parliament while holding 36.7% of the ministerial positions.

On a continent on which strongman or what can presently be classed as toxically masculine rule has led to years of brutal dictatorship, military coups and civilian conflict; a comparative exploration of women’s leadership styles to the renowned strong male leadership as seen on the continent of Africa in the post-colonial period is intriguingly indispensable. The possible transformation of political systems through the infiltration of women, and the ways in which women’s leadership can display itself in juxtaposition to, as well as in the presence of coercive, semi-autocratic male leadership may provide new avenues in which human rights-based governance may be pursued. In delving into the leadership style women when entering public office in the region, one must reckon with the intrinsic social weight of the "African mother". What emanates from the premise of “motherhood” informs the manner in which women’s groups are formed, leaders are chosen, and agendas set. Scholar Jalazai indicates a further “feminine” trait of consensuality – that women are often actors who rise to power through consensus rather than by political or military dominance. Thus, women often rise to power through democratic means and through innovations such as quotas.

The Ugandan system provides for a constitutional quota for the legislature. While this has quickly promoted women into the political life of the country the implementation of the quota has created dubious political outcomes for women. Many governmental bodies were expanded to accommodate this quota and ensure that a 30% minimum was met for women in parliament and all other levels of governance. Tamale finds that semi-democratic or hybrid regimes maintaining high dominance of the state pose the threat of subjugating the incumbent by use of quota manipulation. The expansion of the public service may be another pathway for the executive to expand patronage to now changing political actors. Nonetheless, this relationship between the relenting executive and the new incumbents is mutually affecting, women may use the dominant party ticket in order to enter office and still manage to impact the arrangements of power and the political discourse thereafter.

A key body behind the mobilization of women’s human rights-based policy making has been the women’s caucus in parliament. Many momentous bills have been supported by UWOPA (Uganda Women Parliamentary Association). Furthermore, significant gains have been made through the caucus’ gender mainstreaming strategies, the use of women chairing bills, partnering with male allies and incorporation of NGO support has resulted in the passing of previously contested bills – being the greatest feat of this collaborative caucus – as noted by Wang. The efforts of UWOPA have seen the passing of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act. This bill takes on a contextualised interpretation of what can constitute trafficking. The local issues it deals with include the prohibition of kidnapping for forced or arranged marriage, the use of biological tissue or the trafficking of organs of children and finally, the abduction and use of children in armed conflict. It also addresses issues of state immunity in such cases by stating explicitly that the law may prosecute state officers and military personal who are charged with the violation of the act of trafficking. A bill that is so comprehensive, contextualised and focuses on protection strategies for vulnerable groups is a true testament of the changing trends of policy making through the impact that women have had in being able to participate in parliamentary and policy-making proceedings.


In this regard, women are seen to be performing transformative, human rights-based style of governance. Women in parliament, in particular, often align themselves with NGOs with human rights missions, through their founding or chairing, creating public awareness for the issues which they take up while also being able to transfer them into policy. Often these women are then able to champion certain bills in parliament, receive capacity building training and policy writing assistance and information which is evidence-based as provided by these NGOs.

In addressing the gap between parliamentarians and the general public, these groups try to mitigate the challenges faced by the public in aiming to attain governmental response. In conducting interviews with some prominent NGOs concerning themselves with policy making and women’s human rights in Kampala, I found that they do more than just lobbying. These groups also provide human rights education in creating platforms in which rights holders may claim services from government. An innovative SMS based reporting system for service delivery purposes is provided by WOUGNET which is an NGO which focuses on engendering and advancing ICT use in Uganda. The work of NGOs is also often recognised and taken up by Women Parliamentarians in order to greater appeal and respond to their constituents.

This tactic to increase communication along with accountability leading to greater public trust, participation and appreciation for women in political power goes further with the relations formed between the women’s parliamentary caucus and civil society organizations. UWONET, a network of NGOs which help women in leadership to perform to the best of their abilities through capacity building, support through campaign training and leadership skills, often communicates with this body. An UWONET employee states “with UWOPA we support them by creating platforms to link them to district level women so that they can share information that can inform the debates of these women [WMPs] at the national level”. UWOPA takes advantage of the skills and abilities of these networks by becoming members or seeking to refine their interests to align them with local women’s interests and thus attaching themselves to grassroot issues. Thus, women in political power have managed to influence government to opening the public space and allow for greater communication between government and civil society. This, however, has not gone without gross impediments and determents.

The real locus of power in Uganda still very much rests in the executive, even when the legislature aims at making independent strides to ensure certain rights which are not in the interest of the ruling elite clique, legislation is soon undone and certainly not to be implemented. This is compounded by a general lack of resources to enforce multiple laws particularly in face of widely used local customary law. As explained by an NGO worker “when you look at the laws that we have, ratified at international level, regional and also here in the country almost every aspect is legislated. If you are talking about violence against women there is a law, if you are talking about FGM there is a law, minimum wage – we have just passed a bill […] we have tried to cover up every aspect. But in terms of implementation […] if you look at certain laws like the land act, you find that they prefer to use customary law. That is because there is no enforcement, enforcement comes with resources”. Logistical issues to enforcement do not end there, considering a failure in public service management endemic to the region of Africa is that of an ever-expanding public service. The plan for progressive decentralisation may appear to lead to better representation, but as explained by a MP, that the same logistical resources are afforded to all districts regardless of the size and population of the region. There are several concerns when considering this, the first being that the government budget does not grow as fast or as large as the districts which require state funding. Budgetary strains often being the main impediment to decently implementing laws is exacerbated by the need to also grapple with state institutions which have had their accountability eroded by widespread corruption.

The greatest danger is that we may be witnessing in the region a mutating form of autocratism. While the trappings of authoritarianism, especially that of perpetual incumbency continues to thrive in these semi-democratic arrangements, some modern democratic innovations are adopted and even safeguarded by these modern male leaders. Indeed, the safeguarding of politically mandated inclusion of certain once marginalised groups such as women certainly appears progressive. Yet the actual valueof women’s voices, particularly in the political field, still goes questioned. Some NGO workers revealed that at times parliamentarians behave in a manner which can be classified as rubberstamping the executive. Women parliamentarians by joining this political arrangement may have made themselves complicit in expanding authoritarian aims, much as was seen when an unpopular bill which extends term limits was passed. As explained by the NGO staff “much as there was cogent evidence that there was a significant portion of the population against the amending of the constitution, it was passed anyway […]. And that begs the question that yes, we have the women, but do they have a voice? Do they have the clout to push for any change? Do these numbers represent power? Do they actually represent the voice of women?” Women may instead find themselves to be co-opted in what can be classed as "dictatorship in democratic clothing".

As the road to political representation has remained challenging, often subject to the benevolence of the "man-in-charge", women have continued to make in-roads where there were obstacles. Women’s presence in politics has faced attacks and structural impediment. However, where women have faced difficulties in elections they have infiltrated and legislated for the better, where women have seen social disparity they have motioned for the better. The inclusion of women may not be able to topple an authoritarian leaning system or completely revolutionise the system of governance, but, when seeking to protect the unprotected and change the outcomes of policy in order to secure wider social issues – the addition of women is a proven way to allow for better human rights based policy making. Still, as women learn to use or infiltrate the state, create gender-sensitive state apparatus, international standards and political procedures such as quotas to attempt to gain access to the decision-making faculties, so do the old powers learn to incorporate these new actors to the system through arrangements of patronage and subordination. While women continue to strive to combat human rights abuses and challenge the inevitable consequences of patronage such as corruption through the checking of powers by parastatal bodies they are in and their positions in the judiciary, they in turn must resist the forces of assimilation.

In conclusion, women within unfavourable political arrangements have still managed to set the legislative agenda, pass bills which deviate from the priorities of the executive to the betterment of the general public and manage to forge partnerships with their male counterparts. Furthermore, the real success of women’s incorporation has been the triple participation effect – of women in the parliament (particularly in a caucus) pushing for social policies, lobbied and assisted by the women’s groups or women within the general public and the presence of women in the local level governing systems. Women must participate at all levels of society in order to amplify their impact on local governance in order to transform their political surroundings.

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