Politics and parliamentary scrums

After shaking off the jet lag and chugging home-brewed Rwandan coffee, I ventured into downtown Kigali. Parliament is hard to miss — the building complex sits atop a hill and comes complete with grand boulevards and overzealous security guards.

As I wandered through whitewashed courtyards and narrow halls, I tried to look like I knew where I was going (I didn’t fool anyone.) I was now on my first assignment in Rwanda. I would be covering a speech by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

The East African Legislative Assembly had arrived in Kigali April 10 for a two-week meeting to discuss the integration of partner countries (Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania). Museveni spoke to the Assembly about the need for better infrastructure and political integration. His speech was standard political fare and even included a smattering of jokes.

But my attention was focused on something else entirely. Walking around the Assembly, I noticed it over and over again.

Members of the East African Legislative Assembly.
Members of the East African Legislative Assembly.

Look at all the women.

Female representation is more than 42 per cent in the East African Legislative Assembly.

Margaret Nantongo Zziwa, who holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies, is the first female speaker.

Margaret Nantongo Zziwa
Margaret Nantongo Zziwa

Though Rwanda has long been held up as an example of gender equality in politics–representation in the Parliament’s lower house is 56 per cent — I was surprised this extended to other East African states. In fact, part of the Assembly’s policy requires a certain amount of female representation, which varies depending on the country.

While we waited for the meeting to start, I turned to my editor Andre and remarked on how many female politicians there were. He laughed, “How many in Canada?”

I looked it up, not wanting to underestimate the number. Almost 25 per cent of politicians in the House of Commons are women, and that’s a record for Canada.

Of course, Rwanda demands that at least 30 per cent of Parliamentary seats go to women. Still, that number is far below the reality of 56 per cent in the Chamber of Deputies.

During my undergraduate degree, I wrote enough papers on gender inequality in Canadian politics to know that it’s an issue. But I never really got it until I saw it in practice.

Next time I’m watching Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons, I’ll imagine what it would look like if over half the representatives were women. And I’ll be reminded that at least in Rwanda, electing women is the norm.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni with female members of the East African Legislative Assembly.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni with female members of the East African Legislative Assembly.

4 thoughts on “Politics and parliamentary scrums

  1. I would love to see how different their policies are from other states, and how the presence of women shapes legislation

  2. Hey Clare! I told my mom about your post discussing the greater proportion of women in Rwandan politics. She thinks that their positions are often largely symbolic and that in truth they don’t yield significant power. What is your view on this?

    P.S. My mom is incredibly informed on African politics and like yours thinks you’re crazy. (Note: sarcasm)

    1. Hey Robbie! That’s an interesting question. From what I’ve seen, I don’t think their roles are necessarily symbolic, but I do think that women are sometimes pressured to look at the woman’s perspective (there are women’s issues caucuses etc.) I guess the question becomes, are you a woman first or politician first? With all politicians made equal, women’s issues shouldn’t be left to only the female politicians.

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