KAMPALA, UGANDA — When Stella Nyanzi decided to run for a seat to represent Kampala in Uganda’s Parliament, the outspoken activist, poet and scholar was hopeful that voters would embrace her fearless criticism of the nation’s alleged authoritarian regime.
But when the votes were tallied after the January election, Nyanzi, who proudly bears the moniker “Uganda’s rudest woman,” came in third. The financial cost, the grueling pace of the election and her lack of political experience were all factors in her defeat, Nyanzi says. But the biggest obstacle of all, she says, for her and other women who consider running, may well be gender. Though she lost to another woman, they were vying for one of a prescribed number of seats set aside for women in a system that she says unfairly compels them to run against one another.
A lack of support for women, both in the halls of power and among voters, as well as a dearth of role models, discourages many potential candidates from seeking office, says Nyanzi, who was previously imprisoned for “cyber harassment and offensive communication” after critiquing the “oppression, supression and repression” of the Ugandan president in a graphic poem depicting his birth and his mother’s vagina.
“There are no biographies of successful women in politics accessible to a woman navigating Parliament,” Nyanzi says. “I am a daring woman, and many women are not cut out like that.”
Nyanzi’s defeat is singular because of her high-profile denunciation of the sitting president and emblematic of the hurdles that face women who seek equal representation in Parliament.
Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda
Women have long fought for a greater presence in Parliament – since 1995, the country’s constitution has mandated that women hold a specially designated seat in each of the country’s districts. In 2021, 146 women were elected for the reserved seats, accounting for nearly 28% of the total.
But that quota has failed to fulfill its objective of evening out the distribution of parliamentary power, instead pitting women against one another for a limited number of “second-class” seats, says Juliet Kushaba, who is pursuing a doctoral degree at Makerere Institute of Social Research.
“There is no leveled ground for women in politics,” Kushaba says. “Affirmative action exists, but it does not eliminate other social and structural barriers to women’s participation in parliamentary politics.”
In this year’s elections, only 18 of Parliament’s 353 nonreserved seats went to women. In total, just over a third of Parliament’s members are female, a percentage that has barely budged over the past decade.
President Yoweri Museveni recently appointed women as vice president and prime minister, and increased the percentage of women in his cabinet. But critics argue that those appointments serve primarily to fortify a ruler who just won his sixth consecutive five-year term, in a bloody and contentious election that drew accusations of fraud.
“Gender representation is not about numbers,” says Cissy Kagaba, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, a civil society advocacy organization. “Do we see women in Parliament translating into improved services in areas where they come from? Do we see women in Parliament translating into improving livelihood for the grassroots women?”
Chris Obore, the Parliament’s director of communication and public affairs, says female candidates often struggle to gain financial support comparable to that of male candidates and face harsh judgments and attacks on their character.
“Women don’t have the money, and the person with money wins elections,” he says. “Some of the actions done during the campaigns undignifies the women, and they are discouraged from running.”
Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda
Jenipher Kacha Namuyangu, who is serving her fifth parliamentary term, says “voters are more sympathetic to men.” If, for example, they learn a woman in office is experiencing a personal challenge, such as a divorce, she says, “voters will take that out on her.”
Emily Akullu Omaraca, who twice ran unsuccessfully for a reserved seat, concurs. “The voters want you to parade your husband every time you go to campaign,” she says.
During grueling days of campaigning, Omaraca felt compelled to appear in her gomesi, a traditional floor-length dress that can be hot and make walking difficult. Her slender stature worked against her, she says, as voters voiced their preference for a more “motherly” candidate over someone who might “elope in Parliament.”
A number of organizations are working to change this perception, including the Kampala-based nonpartisan Forum for Women in Democracy and the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association, where Mary Harriet Lamunu is executive director. Such groups encourage women to “get out of their comfort zones and take up their spaces in the different committees to debate effectively, and to understand that the national budget is gender-inclusive,” Lamunu says.
She says her organization and others are working on “continuous sensitization of the masses about the electoral process so that there is a mind change toward women running for the open seats.”
Nyanzi, for one, is undeterred: “I would most definitely run again.”
Beatrice Lamwaka is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting on gender-based violence.