Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of wom­en’s views in Par­lia­ment: Why we need more fem­i­nist leg­is­la­tors than just fe­male num­bers

By: Godfrey Mwesigye

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.