II: The power of strongmen and ruling coalitions: promoting gender equity in dominant settlements

Contesting ideas, aligning incentives: the politics of Uganda’s Domestic Violence Act (2010)

Josephine Ahikire and Amon Mwiine


In the early 1990s, Uganda was counted among the trailblazers on the African continent in terms of women’s inroads into policy-making (Goetz 2003). Together with South Africa, Uganda was one of the few countries with a parliament made up of more than 20 percent female members and an apparent commitment to securing women’s engagement with the state more broadly, including through the significant processes of constitutional reform being undertaken at the time. Since that point, and as Uganda’s political settlement has shifted from away from the broadly dominant-developmental mode that the National Resistance Movement (NRM) established on coming to power in 1986, optimism concerning women’s influence as political actors in Uganda has steadily waned, as an apparent paradox has emerged. On the one hand, women have made significant inroads into important political and policy-making spaces, whereas, on the other, their ability to act autonomously in pursuit of women’s rights and gender equity within these spaces seems to have declined substantially. Critics have focused in particular on the process through which female parliamentarians have come to serve as a vote bank for the ruling coalition, with little room to advance women’s interests (Goetz 2003, Muriaas and Wang 2012, Josefsson 2014). With the women’s movement in Uganda apparently severely constrained in terms of making significant breakthroughs (Isis-WICCE 2014), questions are increasingly raised about the levels of political commitment from Uganda’s political elite to gender equality and women’s political empowerment.

In line with the argument established in Chapter 1 of this book, then, we take a different turn from the now-dominant question of whether women’s presence in parliament is in itself making a difference. Rather, we seek to uncover how the broader organization of political power within Uganda’s political settlement shapes efforts to promote gender equity through national policy processes using a case study of the Domestic Violence Act of 2010. Our investigation of this process involved a multi-method approach, starting with a desk-based literature review that tracked the evolution of Uganda’s political settlement over time against the claims made by women for political and social inclusion. To bring this up-to-date, we undertook a gendered mapping of Uganda’s contemporary political settlement, whereby key actors and ideas on gender equity were positioned in relation to the dominant actors, incentives, and ideas of the ruling coalition. With this context in place, we deployed a process-tracing approach to examine the extent to which the adoption and implementation of the law on domestic violence policy was shaped by Uganda’s political settlement. This relied in part on documentary analysis, but more heavily on key informant interviews and focus group discussions (FGDs) with approximately 20 of the main stakeholders who played a direct role in the policy process. These key actors included parliamentarians, academics, civil servants, and women activists (see Appendix 1). This process-tracing approach enabled us to relate specific gender-related policy processes to wider shifts regarding the organization of political power in Uganda.

The chapter is structured as follows. In the next section, we present an historical overview of moves to promote gender equity in Uganda, from the late colonial era onwards. We then locate the trajectory of women’s political inclusion within Uganda’s changing political settlement over time, up to and including the moment at which activists started to promote legislation against domestic violence in the late 2000s. The following section provides an account of the ideas, incentives, and interests that influenced the actions of the key actors, with a particular focus on the alliance-building and discursive strategies deployed by the women’s movement to promote the adopting of the Domestic Violence Act of 2010. We then analyse the key factors that led to the adoption of the law and the compromises made, and we discuss the slow rate of progress that has so far been made in implementing the law.

Critical junctures and the history of women’s engagement in politics in Uganda

The domain of women’s interests in Uganda became politicized in the 1940s, with women actively promoting women’s rights as a public issue and seeking to reconfigure the basis of women’s citizenship in the country. Women’s mobilization, in which elite women specifically played a vital role (Tamale 1999), centred on contentious issues such as voting rights and property rights in marriage, especially inheritance after the death of the husband. Women formed coalitions, such as the pioneering Uganda Council of Women (UCW) in 1947, which served as melting pots for women’s engagement and schools of political mobilization. During the first decades of independence, the women’s movement continued to gain momentum, despite continued exclusion from formal national politics and the narrowing of political space under increasingly authoritarian forms of political rule and civil conflict from the late 1960s onwards (see Mutibwa 1992). From this point onwards, Uganda’s political settlement was characterized by successive ruling coalitions’ militaristic tendencies that excluded groups based on ethnic and religious identities (Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey 2013, p. 14) and largely excluded women from political power. For instance, Idi Amin’s regime banned all women’s organizations in 1978, and, consequently, a state-controlled structure— the National Council for Women (NCW)—was formed. The effect was to drive

Contesting ideas, aligning incentives 69 underground all women’s mobilization, networking, and advocacy for women’s rights. Individual elite women, some in government departments, ensured that UCW activities remained alive, at least at the district level. In 1980, the second government of President Obote sought to co-opt the NCW as the women’s wing of the ruling Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party, although many female participants resisted this manipulation of the Council (Tripp 2002).

The mass guerrilla struggle of 1981-1985, led by the NRM, brought about a reconfiguration of the public, with a large number of women, peasants, middle class, and notables alike drawn into the armed struggle at different levels. A new language of representation concerning women, youth, and people with disabilities (PWD) was deployed through mobilization within the Resistance Council system, which was first established in war zones and later generalized to the entire country. As participatory structures for local governance that institutionalized the participation of marginal groups, this marked a turning point in the construction of women’s citizenship in Uganda (Ddungu 1994, Ahikire 2007). The end of the guerrilla war in 1986, which directly followed the 1985 UN World Conference on Women held in neighbouring Kenya, presented a window of opportunity for making direct demands for women’s citizenship and entitlements on the basis of their contribution to the struggle (Tripp 2002, Ahikire 2007). In what Goetz describes as a ‘hastily compiled women’s manifesto’, women in Uganda:

... called for the creation of a women’s ministry, for every ministry to have a women’s desk, for women’s representation in local government at all levels, and for the repeal of the law linking the National Council of Women to the government. (2002, p. 555)

These early demands were specifically focused on entry into existing political structures and made directly to the president, a move that perhaps played into the increasing propagation of a politics of patronage (rather than citizenship) that was by now coming to characterize the NRM government (Goetz 2003). The politics of mobilization focused particularly on consultations for the constitutional reform process from 1988 to 1995 (Goetz 2003). The Ministry of Women in Development, established in 1988, together with the women’s movement, organized nationwide consultations, whose outcome was a memorandum to the Constitutional Commission seeking the repeal of legislation that discriminates against women on the basis of gender, particularly in relation to marriage and property rights (Goetz 2003).

This process offered an opportunity for bargaining amongst elites, and between elites and organized groups, around the rules of the game. It also enabled women to demand a range of rights and provided a focus for those engaging in the politics of mobilization and recognition (Tripp et al. 2009). Reforms around decentralization also opened up further space for women’s inclusion to be addressed in a direct manner. One outcome was article 31 of the new Constitution, which stipulated that both men and women aged 18 years and above have the right to marry and to found a family and are entitled to equal rights in marriage, during marriage, andat its dissolution. The conversation and mobilization around family law affected the political discourse and largely formed the origins of the need to criminalize domestic violence hitherto constructed as a norm. In the analysis that follows, we attempt to locate these reform processes within the understanding of Uganda’s political settlement using domestic violence law as our entry point.

Women’s inclusion within Uganda’s shifting political settlement: short-term dividends, long-term losses

Drawing from the typology of political settlements presented in Chapter 2, Uganda under the NRM can be characterized as having started out as a strongly dominant-personalized form of political settlement, with developmentalist and institution-building tendencies. From 1986 until the early 2000s, there was little chance of power changing hands, and the relative stability enjoyed by the ruling coalition enabled it to develop and implement reforms and policies aligned with a longer-term vision. For well over a decade after the NRM came to power in 1986, it was lauded for building an inclusive ruling coalition and implementing major economic and political reforms that helped generate both pro-poor growth and significant investment in social services. As Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey (2013, p. 14) argue, the rise to power of Yoweri Museveni and the NRM party:

marked a crucial turning point in the country’s politics, particularly with his rejection of multi-party politics in favour of an ‘all-embracing’ movement political system, a system designed to avoid the sectarian conflicts associated with political party competition in Uganda.

However, from the early 2000s, Uganda has progressively moved towards a weakly dominant form of political settlement, characterized by an increasingly personalized approach to governance (Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey 2013, 2016). Rising levels of inter-elite conflict and also demand-making from below have altered the configuration of power in Uganda, leaving the ruling coalition more vulnerable and less willing to adopt and implement a long-term vision for the country. The return of multiparty elections and the abolition of presidential term limits in 2005 helped cement this vulnerability and an increasingly populist reliance on patronage-based forms of rule (Whitfield et al. 2015). During this period, the president has increasingly relied on an inner circle of family and loyal followers— creating a narrow core within the ruling coalition—and enhanced his political powers (Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey 2013). Moreover, the public bureaucracy has been increasingly sidelined in favour of more personalized forms of governance, with goods and services delivered within the logic of clientelistic deals, rather than rights-based claims.

Uganda’s post-conflict political settlement involved women becoming highly visible within the political sphere, underpinned by their role in the armed struggle, an active women’s movement, as well as the broader politics of transition that was more amenable to a politics of inclusion. Goetz (2003) shows how the initial

Table 4-1 Trends in women’s numbers in Uganda’s National Assembly


Number of districts



Open seat


Total women

Total MPs

% women
































































Sources: Isis-WICCE (2014), Ahikire (2017), Madanda (2017).

Key: AA = affirmative action; NRC = National Resistance Council; CA = Constituent Assembly.

Notes: Under the affirmative action policy, each of the districts sends a woman representative to the national legislature. Consequently, the number of districts determines the number of women that will enter into the national legislature through the women’s quota system.

‘Others’ includes representatives of people with disabilities (PWDs), workers, youth, and presidential nominees.

suspension of party politics, and the institutionalization of what was known as ‘the movement system’, freed women for over two decades from the constraints of party patronage, and helped establish the domain of women’s interests within the wider public realm. This, together with the policies of affirmative action1 that created reserved seats for women, saw an historic growth in the numbers of women, especially in parliament and local councils (see Table 4.1). Accordingly, the special seats, taken together with special appointments of women to important positions in the public administration and judiciary, by the president himself, ‘seemed to make a major crack in the glass ceiling which so often holds women back’ (Goetz 2003, p. 111). Special seats for women have clearly delivered in terms of numbers, from a situation where there was only one woman in a legislature of 126 members in 1980 (Tamale 1999), to 34.3 percent of parliamentarians being female in 2018 (Inter Parliamentary Union 2018). This is well above the regional average for sub-Saharan Africa, which currently stands at 23.73 percent (Inter Parliamentary Union 2018). Nonetheless, there have long been concerns about the ghettoizing effect of reserved seats and the danger that women as a group may be treated as a vote bank for the ruling party on whose patronage they rely. This perception has deepened from the mid-2000s onwards through the government’s incessant creation of electoral districts; given that every additional district automatically creates a new post for a female MP, women have been constructed as a primary beneficiary of‘districtization’ (Green 2010).

However, concerns over the terms of women’s inclusion and their declining influence grew steadily as Uganda’s political settlement became increasingly characterized by the politics of patronage after the first decade of NRM rule (Goetz 2003). As the NRM became increasingly used as a means to reproduce the power of the regime, as opposed to undertaking reforms to state-society relations, and with political competition based on individual merit and strategizing, rather than a programmatic platform, the movement became increasingly characterized by ‘intrigue and clientelism’, as people competed for access to opportunities to dispense patronage (Goetz 2003, p. 115). The return to multiparty democracy in 2005, and the rising threat to the ruling party from the oppositional Forum for Democratic Change, increased the incentives for the NRM to tighten its grip on power through clientelist means, and further de-institutionalize state power, as well as to atomize social struggles that may otherwise have created momentum towards redistributive justice.

This is not to underestimate the gains that women have made in policy-making so far. From the constitution-making process in the mid-1990s onwards, women MPs, operating through the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA), have been able to push through several measures aimed at increasing gender equity, including the Equal Opportunities Act of 2010 and gender-responsive budgeting. However, we would argue that the architecture of power in Uganda only allows for a particular kind of policy-making—one that is heavily encumbered by populist and clientelist incentives and that struggles to result in programmatic policy platforms that are delivered effectively by the state bureaucracy. In very specific ways, Uganda’s political settlement limits the parameters of a gender-inclusive agenda and severely constrains women’s capacity to develop a long-term gender equality agenda, as also seen elsewhere (Rai 2008). As Castillejo (2011) notes, political business in clientelistic political settlements is conducted through informal networks and informal spaces, thereby structuring political negotiation around individuals, as opposed to institutions. This closely shapes the extent to which women’s mobilization can occur and have meaningful and enduring effects. As Fraser rightly argues, when the politics of recognition is devoid of redistributive politics, there is an inherent danger of displacement leading to misrecognition—a situation in which the collective is denied the status of a full partner in social interaction (Fraser 1998, p. 3). In this sense, women as a collective have increasingly become part of the group of clients who are on their knees, while gender equality concerns are equally channeled through a populist and atomized political process (Ahikire 2017).The establishment of the Domestic Violence Act in 2010, we argue, was directly shaped by Uganda’s political settlement dynamics in ways that rendered it a compromised and populist law, with little prospect of being effectively implemented.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >