27th April, 2006
From kitchens to boardrooms

This is the 3rd part of our Millennium Development Goals series. RICHARD M. KAVUMA asks if Uganda is scoring Goal Three, which is about women empowerment.

When Christine Acan was growing up in the 1970s, men were the rulers and women the subjects in her village of Anai, near Lira town.
The idea of a woman in leadership, she says, was unimaginable.

Today, as chairperson of Ipito Aweno Local Council in Lira Municipality, Acan, 41, carries herself with the confidence of a woman comfortable with authority.

“It is good that we women now have a voice even if it is not very strong,” says Acan, who bakes doughnuts for a living. “Some men say I am just a mere woman. But the majority respect me and they are pushing me to be their councillor at the municipality.”

TOPS: Women, like deputy head of the Civil Service Hilda Musubira, are getting into key positions
GIRL POWER: Newly elected MPs Susan Nakawuki (Busiro East) and Beti Kamya (Rubaga North) can now defeat men at elections

As chairperson, Acan says, she has no problem chairing village meetings and solving disputes.
“Men too report cases to me; one can report that another has refused to pay his money,” she says expressionlessly. “I then sit down with them and we normally solve the matter.”

Women like Acan excite Zoe Bakoko Bakoru, the Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development. Bakoko says that whenever she tours her Ayivu constituency in Arua, she is amazed at the nmber of women LC-I chairpersons and leaders of local organisations. It shows, she says, that even at the grassroots level, women are getting empowered.

Uganda has won accolades for promoting gender equity and women empowerment. Much of this credit stemmed from the appointment in 1994 of Dr. Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe as vice president, making her Africa’s first woman to hold that position; the creation of women’s positions on local government committees and in Parliament, and initiating affirmative action to get more girls into university.

Hence by the time world leaders agreed on Millennium Development Goal 3 – to promote gender equality and women empowerment – Uganda was already pursuing it vigorously. With international consensus that education and economic opportunities are key to the advancement of marginalised groups, it is not surprising that the key target under Goal 3 is to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005 and at all levels by 2015.

As Bakoko says, Uganda has
done well in getting women involved in the political process. For instance, in 1993, women constituted 18 percent of Parliament, a figure that has since risen to 25 percent. Women also occupy key positions, such as ministers (5 out of 24), and deputy ministers (11 out of 44), head of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the Inspector General of Government, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the deputy heads of the Judiciary, Civil Service and Electoral Commission.

But the main focus for the millennium campaign is education. And here, the performance is mixed.
One of the major successes of Universal Primary Education (UPE) has been to increase the access of girls to education. Initially, when UPE was introduced, it catered for four children per family – two boys and two girls. This greatly increased the ratio of girls in primary school because the traditional practice was to send boys to school and to marry off the girls.

Ministry of Education figures show that the number of girls is equal to that of boys up to Primary Five (P5), although girls were fewer in all classes before the introduction of UPE.

On average, the boys are 51 percent and girls 49 percent for all primary school classes. But the higher one goes, the smaller the ratio of girls to boys. Girls, for instance, are reported to be 47 percent of P6 pupils and 43 percent of P7 pupils. But a May 2004 UPE Stakeholders’ handbook says that this is still an improvement from 1992 when girls were 41% of P6 and 38% of P7 pupils.

PYRAMID: Fewer girls than boys proceed to university and tertiary level

The challenge for the sector is to duplicate success in lower primary at secondary and tertiary levels.

“[School] dropout affects girls more because there are several factors at play as girls grow up, like the facilities,” Minister Bakoko said. “This is the time when girls are getting their first periods… the boys tease the girls when they spot blood on their clothes and that actually intimidates the girls and makes them leave school.”

Besides, parents and guardians are inclined to pull a girl – rather than a boy – out of school to attend to a sick relative or if they lack enough money for school requirements such as uniform and books.

“To sustain gender parity in primary education, it is important to maintain enrolment of children through the improvement of school sanitation facilities, i.e. building of latrines segregated by sex and paying special attention to location and school-specific gender differences particularly on how girls are treated,” says a July 2005 government report on MDGs.
Bakoko says government is now emphasising better sanitation facilities for girls, separate from those for boys.

Reducing opportunities

The situation gets worse for girls in secondary schools, according to Albert Byamugisha, Assistant Commissioner for Statistics in the ministry of Education. About 55 percent of students are boys and only 45 percent girls. Over 90 percent of students enrolled in business, technical and vocational educational institutions are boys.

However, the situation might improve as President Museveni promised free secondary education in his manifesto.

The number of girls attaining university education has risen tremendously but is still small compared to that of boys.

In 1990, Makerere University started affirmative action, giving 1.5 bonus points to female applicants. The proportion of female students has since risen from about 20% to 35% in 1998 and to 42% in 2004.

The university is however studying how the scheme can benefit the more critically marginalised. One problem is that some of the beneficiaries do not actually need the 1.5 points to join public universities, as they attend good schools where they are well placed to compete with boys. Meanwhile, many girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle against all odds in upcountry schools do not even get to compete for the places at the university.

The share of women in wage employment outside agriculture is another measure of gender equality. Although this is difficult to measure because of limited data, statistics from Uganda Bureau of Statistics show that of the economically active population, there are more women who are either self-employed or unpaid family workers. Of the estimated 4 percent of the population employed by the private sector, 39 percent are women.

The ratio of women in wage employment is still low, which according to Bakoko, is a reflection of unequal access to higher education.

“That is to be expected if women are not getting educated and if in the university there are more boys than girls,” Bakoko says. “The example is just having two halls for girls against seven halls for boys [at Makerere University]. That is evidence that the girl child is still being left out.

If their numbers are fewer, they cannot compete at the same level for jobs.” The minister however takes pride in the fact that 25 percent of MPs are women and that “at the lower level of local government, women occupy 45% of the positions”. Bakoko attributes this to the political commitment to empower women but also on good government policies.

One of them is the functional literacy programme, for which women have shown greater enthusiasm, making up 70 percent of the beneficiaries. The beneficiaries determine learning needs, for instance family planning, nutrition and immunisable diseases, and then agree on how to implement agreed interventions. The programme is facilitated by community-based and community development organisations. Bakoko argues that such programmes have helped grassroots women to realise their potential.

Challenges remain

But many leading women activists are not swayed by a few women in political office. In fact, in the words of Makerere University law lecturer Sylvia Tamale, such positions are quantitative but do not improve the quality of women’s participation in public life. Tamale told The Weekly Observer that the state lacked the political will to achieve full rights for women and hence many obstacles remain.

Article 32 (2) of the 1995 Constitution commits Parliament to make laws for the establishment of an Equal Opportunities Commission, as a key vehicle for implementing affirmative action to empower women. But 10 years later, that commission has never been formed. This has left political representation as the face of gender-equality and women empowerment, which does not address deep-seated societal imbalances.

“Women are in positions of power without power,” says Tamale. “The Domestic Relations Bill tried to address some of these challenges but it was thrown out.”

Grace Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, associate professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Makerere University agrees, giving an example of domestic violence, which is on the rise globally and remains a key obstacle for Ugandan women.

“The [Domestic Relations Bill] stalled and yet it was supposed to solve a number of critical issues. The issue of property rights is still very contentious in families,” she says.

Using the percentage of women amongst the top national decision makers, Kyomuhendo argues that a lot remains to be done. Women constitute less than 30 percent of ministers, permanent secretaries, under secretaries, department heads and managers of development programmes.

At Makerere, for instance, the Gender Mainstreaming Division says that there is one female Ph.D student to every 10 males; women make up only 20 percent of students in science disciplines while women in key decision-making positions such as deans, directors and top managers are barely 10%.

Therefore, while women in Uganda have come a long way, key challenges remain, not least economic empowerment and improved sexual and reproductive health.
Christine Acan, a P.7 graduate whose daughter is training to be a teacher, says the majority of women are still not empowered partly because their men want to keep them that way.

“It needs to sit down with the men and convince them,” she says. “But women also need to work and earn some money. At least each woman needs to make Shs 5,000 a day”

But, says minister Bakoko, the biggest challenge is “to make society appreciate the importance of education for the girl-child, not just primary education but at all levels.”

Unless that happens fast, Uganda will not eliminate gender-imbalances at all levels of education in the next nine years.

Only in The Weekly Observer Next Thursday: Uganda’s performance on child health