Representation of women’s views in Parliament: Why we need more feminist legislators than just female numbers
Recently I read a publication on The Efficacy of The Affirmative Action Policy and Women’s Political Empowerment in Uganda by policy researcher, Winnie Watera. In her analysis, the author provides insights on how, if at all affirmative action in providing for special quotas for women’s representation in Parliament (as reflected in the numerical increase of female MPs) translates into meaningful political representation and political power enough to galvanize the development, empowerment and emancipation of the average Ugandan woman.
As an advocate of gender equity, I have been pondering about whether there has been an improvement in the representation of the views of women in Parliament, even with the affirmative action for women, when the decisions are being made. Some have argued in defense of affirmative action that ‘women’s numbers in leadership’ are the gist for the representation of women’s views and aspirations. I beg to differ. Numbers alone are a starting point but just not enough!
In a society that is socialized along patriarchal norms, it is not surprising that there isn’t equal opportunity and consideration for the expression and representation of women’s views by both men and women. I agree that having more women representatives in leadership positions, for example in Parliament, is a big step for women emancipation. Yet to attain gender equity, we need more than numbers. We need more feminists to counter the institutional and systematic marginalization of women. Even women leaders themselves need to be aware of what I call the ‘patriarchy trap.’ The situation where one is socialized by the patriarchal system to the extent that [s]he subconsciously fronts views that prop the patriarchy even when they occupy positions of leadership and authority. Women leaders elected in positions of authority need skills and training in public speaking, lobby and advocacy for them to be able to speak up against male-dominated spaces and systems.
There are some proposed policies and laws which would support the women views and rights if considered, but surprisingly the Members of Parliament including some female MPs have been hesitant to consider these proposals. A case in point is when the marriage and divorce bill was tabled in the Parliament of Uganda in 2009, which has up to today received a lot of criticism across the gender isle. The bill is important in ensuring that the rights of girls and women are respected in marriage and at its dissolution would thwart the archaic cultural beliefs and practices such as widow inheritance, early marriages for girls below the age of eighteen, and recognize fair distribution of property in case of divorce. Since these are the issues which affect women and girls, one would have expected at least all the Members of Parliament who are women to support this bill but this has not been the case.
Nevertheless, women’s rights are human rights which should therefore be a concern for everyone, not just women leaders but their male counterparts as well. It is on this premise that I argue that we need more ‘feminist legislators,’ both women and men that are pro-women issues -not just women’s numerical strength. This will guarantee that the laws and policies passed by Parliament are gender sensitive and responsive. In this regard, we should do away with the assumption that affirmative action for women in leadership on its own is enough to translate into women legislative representation. We need to challenge the entire socialization process which disempowers women to the extent that even when they get into leadership positions, they are unable to speak up and make the necessary changes therein.
I am cognizant of the tremendous strides that the affirmative action policies have had on women’s political representation. However moving forward, it is critical to assess such representation not only from a quantitative aspect but in qualitative prisms as well. As we engage in this discussion we need to constantly ask, whose side are the legislators on? It is unfortunate that our agents of socialization; family, schools, religion, media, state and peers have done a disservice to us by inculcating the patriarchal beliefs that have contributed to the gender-based prejudice that women continue to face.
It is important that both female and male legislators embrace the gender-sensitive lens if we are to have the views of girls and women, who for long have often been relegated to the fringes, represented in policymaking and development processes. For this to be actualized, there need to be more feminists in Parliament than just more women.