Speaker Rebecca AlitwalaKadaga is the first female speaker of parliament of Uganda. She punched her way to politics on the affirmative card when she contested forMember of Parliament representing the women of Kamuliin 1989 (NRC) to date. She has been at the forefront of championing gender equality andwomen empowerment. The Public Lens’ Stephen Bwire caught up with her in a no-holds-barred interview. Excerpts;-
You have been in the corridors of power for quite long, serving in the various portfolios. How would you describe your experience of being in government?
Well, first the arrival of women has been gradual. If you look at the structure of government over many years, we had no women ministers. Among the first female ministers we had Hon. Bagaya and Mrs.Senkatuka then after that followed by Mrs.Bitamazire, and then the numbers kept growing. But we have to lead in order to open doors because the structure of our society did not acknowledge the leadership of women; so patriarchy still exists, and one has to navigate that journey through patriarchy to be able to do work.Secondly, you have to be exceedingly good so that no questions are asked about your capacity. So, it has been an interesting journey.
How have you broken-through the barriers to scale to the top in a male-dominated world, considering the positions you have held locally and internationally?
First, it requires a lot of preparation and it didn’t just happen, I have been consistently attending the meetings, but also I have taken many leadership positions both in the Commonwealth and the IPU [Inter-Parliamentary Union]. In the Commonwealth, I started as a branch representative, then I became the chair of the CWP [Commonwealth Parliamentarians] Africa, so I worked on programs that no other Chair had done, and no other region in the Commonwealth had done except Africa. So my work was outstanding. Because of the work I had done in Africa, they thought I should also support them to do the international work and build the women parliamentarians which I did quite well. within the IPUI started as a member and then I became a chair of a standing committee, later I became a member of the executive committee, where I represented the East African region; and forinstance when I was in the regional executive, we brought in south Sudan, we brought in Somalia, we brought in new members to the IPU through my leadership in the executive committee. So it has been a journey, but it has been perfected overtime.
As a champion of women empowerment, what are some of the initiatives you have undertaken as Speaker of Parliament to improve the lives of women?
Within Parliament, we have advocated to have daycare facility for the children so that mothers who come there are comfortable. And this applies to all public places, for instance now all the new markets must have a daycare facility so that women in the market can have their children playing while they are doing their work. We have also advocated for other facilities for instance we have proposed that all new roads which are being built should have positions for resting so that if you have been travelling with a small child in a bus, you don’t have to go and take the child to the bush to urinate. We have proposed that all the roads should have those rest areas where there’s a bathroom, there’s a small restaurant, where people can sit, or change the children or something like that, so those are some of the things on infrastructure. Of course we have discussed the buildings for some of the women who are disabled and so on, so we have discussed all those. We have been advocating hard for the people with disabilities, and we recently wrote to the President that the people in the judiciary should be trainedin sign language so that they are able to communicate with the people with disabilities.Those are some of the areas we are working on;but on education, we have worked on reduction of taxes on many items that the women use for instance the sanitary towels we removed the taxes that had been re-introduced. At a different level, personally I have worked on the issue of water, in my constituency there’s a lot more water than many other places because the women spend so much time and the children spend so much time walking to look for the water, if there’s a water point, you have thousands of Jerrycans who could stay there day and night, so one of the things we need to do to help the rural woman is to make sure she has water so that she can collect quickly and do her work. There used to be a program on cooking stoves which would enable the people to cook very quickly, I don’t know how far it has spread- it used to be in the ministry of energy, but I don’t hear much about it though this is one of the interventions that would help the rural woman to be able to cook quickly and get time to do other things and maybe to even go and do business. So, also to take their medical services nearer, we still have a challenge on schools. The distances that the children have to walk, sometimes they really have to walk very many miles, so it’s risky for them because they have to start walking early in the morning, they have got to come back late in the night, so all those risks we need to address so that facilities are put nearer where the children can access them quickly maybe 1km or something so that they don’t have to walk long distances. And then of course we have been discussing and trying to improve on the household income, we are trying really hard to ensure that there are more economic activities which women can do in order to earn a living.
Day by day, you have been seen to push for the independence of the Legislature in accordance with the doctrine of separation of powers. Are you satisfied that the institution which you superintend is somewhat independent?
I think we have made progress, you know before the1995 constitution, the powers heavily gravitated towards the Executive, the Legislature and Judiciary were like small brothers of the Executive, but the Constitution has given us some autonomy,but I have learnt that it’s a constant battle to remind the other branches that don’t step on my feet. This is my parameter, and this is your parameter, don’t step on my feet. So we have made progress because I have been continuously talking about it, and we are gaining ground.
We witnessed a huge storm in parliament during the debate to amend the Constitution to lift presidential age limits. How did you manage to steer through this chaotic process and restore the House to normalcy?
One of the things I did was to give people time to talk, so that those who were in favour of the amendment spoke, but also those who were not in favour had an opportunity to speak, and for me I wanted to give them an opportunity to convince their colleagues. If they believe you, they will vote with you. For me the important thing was to be able to table the positions of all the sides and then reach and take a vote. You know if I have ten votes and you have one it means I have got more people on my side than you. So for me it was really allowing them to speak and it was one of the longest sittings we had because I think we were sitting up to eleven almost every day .We were sitting the whole day. More than 150 members spoke, so in the end all those who had the issues that they wanted to air were able to speak and finally when the vote came, they were able to vote. But it requires some skills to manage the sitting.
As a senior national NRM party leader, what do you have to say about the current squabbles in the party where some of our leaders are pulling ropes?
I think the main problem is that we don’t meet as a party. We don’t meet. For instance the Central Executive Committee has not sat for several months. If we were meeting, we would probably listen to what is happening in our departments. So for me the failure to meet is a big hindrance to the work of the party. Actually I can’t tell you that I know what is happening. I don’t know why the people were dismissed [party secretariat staff were summarily sacked], so the absence of meeting is a big problem.
The question of gender parity has lingered on for long. In your tenure in parliament, what have you done to answer this question of gender parity especially in leadership positions?
Other than the constitutional provisions, during my tenure, we were able to amend the rules of procedure to ensure that 40% of the leadership positions in the House are held by women. It was a long struggle, it took us about four years but eventually it was achieved. Now we have 42% and I hope it can grow to equality. The idea is to go 50:50.
Are there women leaders you would look at and feel proud of their achievements?
Within parliament, there have been some, but also out there, there are women who continue to inspire;people like Grace Mpanga, Rhoda Kalema, Victoria Sekitoleko, Dr. Kazibwe, they have been many. Especially the ones with whom we joined in 1989, People like Roy Nkwasibwe. And then of course now we have more people like Doris Akol of URA, AllenKagina at UNRA, Jennifer Musisiat the KCCA, in the UIA there is JollyKamuhangire. We also have a number of accounting officers who are ladies.
What would think of as most memorable event during the time you have been in public service?
I think the real memorable one would be, that in 2012 we were able to host for the first time and probably the only time in the next 50 years the Inter Parliamentary Union, it was part of our golden jubilee celebrations. The last international meeting of parliament was in 1967 during Obote 1. It was the Commonwealth. After that there has been no international meetings of parliament so IPU was really the big one, with the golden jubilee but also an opportunity to market Uganda and even now some of the people who came, now come back for holidays, many of the delegates come back here for holidays so I thing that’s the big one. Maybe I can tell you that in 2019, we are going to now host the international Common wealth since 1967.