On Wednesday, September 3, 2014, The Women in Public Service Project of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) co-sponsored a public report launch event with The Africa Program titled, “Mapping the Substantive Representation of Women in the Ugandan Parliament”. Dr. Dina Refki, Executive Director of the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society (CWGCS), Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany, and Ms. Diana Abbas, a Research Associate at the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society and a Fulbright Scholar from Lebanon, presented their research assessing the gender imbalance in the Ugandan Parliament by examining the efficacy of the quota system and challenges involved with implementation. The study was a collaboration between the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University of Albany and Nkumba University. The report launch was moderated by Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Director of the GWLI and the Women in Public Service Project, and Dr. Monde Muyangwa, the Director of the Africa Program, provided commentary.
The Impact of Quotas in Parliament
Critical mass theory argues that as the number of women in legislature increases, the opportunities for these women parliamentarians to promote legislation related to women’s issues also increases similarly, particularly in situations where quota policies reserve specific seats for female representatives. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the implementation of electoral gender quotas has drastically changed legislative bodies. Rwanda currently leads the world in women’s representation in a single or lower house of Parliament, and more than 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have more than 30% of women in their parliaments. Despite this, it has been argued that while quotas create spaces in a legislature for women, this has not necessarily translated into substantive representation.
The research Dr. Refki and Ms. Abbas presented asked the question: does the increase in the number of women in parliament have a direct correlation with substantive representation? Furthermore, what contextual factors are necessary for substantive representation to occur?
Thus far, Constitutional mandates in Uganda have increased women’s descriptive representation and have paved the way by breaking stereotypes about women’s abilities and competencies. In the 9th Ugandan Parliament there are a total of 133 female MPs (Constituency Representatives, a Woman/District Representative, or a Special Interest representative), placing Uganda at 17th in the world with 34.3% women in Parliament. Despite this, the overall inability of the 9th Parliament of Uganda to move on critical women’s bills indicates that increased descriptive representation of women legislators is not consistently tied to similar improvements in substantive representation.
Challenges and Next Steps
Dr. Refki and Ms. Abbas continued on to discuss the 10 institutional and structural challenges facing women MPs, specifically highlighting these three:
- Lack of work –life balance. Ms. Abbas discussed how women MPs still bear the brunt of housework and child-rearing, noting how female Parliament members repeatedly voiced their frustration that gender roles in the private sphere have not changed at the same speed roles of women in the public sphere have.
- Limited access to opportunities to lobby, influence, and advocate. The majority of informal activity happens at the end of the work day, in bar and club environments. Even if women MPs did not have to go home, they generally felt unwelcome in those environments.
- A legal quota system that accelerates descriptive representation, yet explicitly disrupts substantive representation. The quota system places an undue burden on women, as they have larger geographical districts to represent. In addition, few women were able to use their seats as Women Representatives to launch successful bids for Constituency Representatives. Dr. Refki discussed how some people saw those bids as “women taking men’s seats”, exposing serious flaws in the quota system. Intended to be a temporary measure to assist women in getting the training necessary to win non-special interest seats, the quota system is not working as planned.
Dr. Refki went on to discuss the necessary reforms to counteract the current contextual challenges female MPs are facing, including strengthening alliances with men, mobilizing women across party lines, and harnessing civil society as a resource. Both Ms. Refki and Ms. Abbas reiterated the importance of re-conceptualizing the quota system to strengthen the mandate effect and mitigate the label effect to achieve substantive representation.
Following the end of the report presentation, Dr. Muyangwa offered her thoughts and commentary on the research. She commended the role of the report in filling a void on quota research, and paving a path for moving forward. Dr. Muyangwa discussed the importance of preventing gender issues from becoming a segregated area. She explicitly said, “We don’t want people to feel that they are being pushed into women’s issues and not the ‘main work’”, she discussed. Further, “What are other ways that women can participate in Parliament that can bring about structural change?” Dr. Muyangwa also stressed the importance of understanding how gender is understood and perceived in Africa, as well as the importance of framing political issues by taking cultural norms into consideration in order to better relate to people.
The presentation concluded with a question and answer session. Stephenie Foster, a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues made a point, asking, “What are our expectations of women who are elected to office?” She said that while we want them to bring their experiences into the office, are we expecting more from them than we are from their male colleagues? Ms. Abbas response was one later echoed by Dr. de Silva de Alwis in her closing remarks: “We don’t need to ask women to do more, but we need to ask them not to hold back. We need to help women feel that using their gender as a perspective is not a bad thing.”
Dr. de Silva de Alwis ended the session by underscoring the importance of the research that was presented by Dr. Refki and Ms. Abbas. “Women and men are both expected in a representative democracy to address equality issues. These are not women’s issues, they are fundamental equality issues. History has shown that when women are at the table, they bring their lived experience and help create that necessary change.”