New strategies for increased cooperation between women politicians and women activists were developed during the conference held in Uganda, with participants from six African countries. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Anna Lithander.
New strategies for increased cooperation between women politicians and women activists were developed during the Ugandan conference, with participants from six African countries. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Anna Lithander.

Unique talks in Uganda

“For the first time ever, we sit together, women politicians and activists, and talk about what we can do together. It is big and so important” says Chou Chou Namegabe, from Association des Femmes des Médias, AFEM, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of the participants at The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s and International Alert’s April conference, on cooperation between women in politics and in civil society.

The fans rustle in the warm, humid conference room in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Outside the open windows facing the street and beyond it the green hills, massive rain showers bite the tail of the sharp sunlight in a never ending cycle. Around a large meeting table, about forty women from six African countries – DR Congo, Senegal, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – have spent nearly three days in deep discussions on how to improve cooperation between women politicians and activists.

It is not an easy task. In many parts of Africa, the gap between activists and politicians is wide. The activists distrust the female politicians, who they believe are letting them down once they have been elected. The politicians on the other hand think that civil society women don’t understand how slow the process is when working within political structures.

Most women politicians also face the challenge of developing their political profession at the same time as being responsible for family and household. They all live in male-dominated societies where poverty and violence have a huge impact on women’s lives, and where politics generally is seen as a male domain. Women in politics often feel lonely and excluded, and often lack basic knowledge of how to work the political game.

Common goals

But in the conference room in Kampala, something happens. Through identifying the problems and finding common grounds, strategies for collaboration between formal power and civil society can finally be decided upon. Forming or restructuring of networks, training in political issues for rural women and politicians becoming better at sharing what is going on are some of the ideas presented.

“This meeting is a success” says Rita Aciro, head of the Uganda Women’s Network. “We are not stuck in the allegations of what the respecive parties have done or not done. Instead we have tried to address the problems to find ways to reach our common goals.”

Uniting everyone in the room is the desire to strengthen the rights of women and to help women understand politics, so they feel the need for and get the courage to get involved in society.

During the days in Kampala, several women politicians and activists, tell of good examples of collaboration. In Senegal, for example, female politicians are already cooperating with female lawyers, who help them with legislative and other legal documents. And in Rwanda women got together to influence the new constitution that was being formed in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Women activists and parliamentarians wrote a draft constitution which included a 50 percent quota for women in the parliament. It was adopted and today women make up 66.6 percent of the persons elected.

But even if Rwanda has become somewhat of a role model in this area, there still is a lot left to be learned, says Jennifer Wibabara, member of the parliament for the Rwanda Patriotic Front.

“Being a politician, I have a responsibility to make sure that the networks continue to function. We can’t just be content and settle down. At this meeting, I have heard many good examples of how we can develop. For example I have already invited the Uganda Women’s Network to Rwanda this summer to talk about their way of working. This is the first meeting I have been to, where both sides are working togheter. Often it’s just civil society getting together to learn how to lobby against politicians, as antagonists. But here it’s we – not us and them.”

Liberian women mobilise

Historically, Liberia has had a strong women’s movement, but currently it’s suffering a backlash after the huge efforts being used to reach peace in the country in the early 2000s. After the peace agreement, Liberia elected Africa’s first female president to head the country, and many women got ministerial posts. Today, that number has gone down and the collaboration between politicians and civil society is very limited. But in Kampala the Liberian women started to mobilise again. They called to a meeting and sat down to discuss how to start cooperating.

“Today, we only see our politicians when they campaign before the election, then they disappear” says Wokie Cole, from the Liberian Women Empowerment Network, LIWEN.

“But here we’ve found a link to our political representatives. Next time we invite them to a meeting, they will show up. We get to help shape policies, instead of just abide by them” adds Helena Torh-Turo, from the South East Women Development Association, SEWODA.

Josephine Francis, member of the Liberian parliament, also welcomed the conference and was happy for the sharing of experiences with other countries in the region.

“We have a very low representation of women in parliament, only eight percent. We must find ways to reach out to women in Liberia, increasing both their knowledge and awareness of politics” she says.

Continued cooperation

Before the ending of the conference – with a customary group photo among palm trees and cacti on the hotel premises – the important issue of follow-up is being discussed. How should the participants carry on working with all these new ideas? Ways of collaboration and use of media, ideas on how to reach women and how to use internet as a meeting place are some suggestions offered.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s use the tools we already have and just make them stronger. We have developed so many strategies and ideas here, now we can go back to our respective countries and work with them” concludes Catherine Mabobori from Burundi’s President’s Office.

Chou Chou Namegabe is looking forward to go back to DR Congo and continue what has been started here.

“You see, I have never met the female politicians in Bukavu before, even though we live in the same city. The gap between us is so wide. We don’t know what the others are doing. But here in Uganda, we met and we have already talked about cooperating.  So I will make contact with our local politicians as soon as we are back home” she says.

Anna Lithander

Updated in: 2013-06-04