Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Uganda's glass ceiling may give way

By Jeevan Vasagar  /  THE GUARDIAN , MBARARA, UGANDA

As the Ugandan president and his challengers prepared for a showdown at the polls Friday, the country's first lady was also running for election after a campaign which has seen women politicians making remarkable progress. Janet Museveni, 57, is made her first foray into politics by running as a parliamentary candidate in rural Ruhama in western Uganda.

On a continent where men have dominated post-independence politics, the past year has seen the beginnings of a gender shift. As well as President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, there is Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, South Africa's deputy prime minister, who joins two other prominent female leaders in southern Africa: Zimbabwe's deputy president, Joyce Mujuru, and Mozambique's prime minister, Luisa Diogo.

Critics say Uganda's first lady had an unfair advantage: not many candidates have the president campaigning on their behalf the weekend before an election.

However, Museveni, 57, said she is running for office to oust an ineffective opposition member of parliament (MP), Augustine Ruzindana, a defector from the ruling party.

"I don't see why that (being first lady) should be a problem," she said in a recent interview. "My opponent has been an MP for 15 years and he should have done something, to say: `I did this.' The fact is that he didn't do that much. I think he really should have nothing to complain about."

Museveni is a born-again Christian who promotes abstinence as the way to counter HIV/Aids, and once held a rally for virgins at a Kampala school. She claimed that opponents of her views had a vested interest in the condom industry.

"I think people who criticize my stand on abstinence are people who have companies, with something to benefit from what they sell.

People who have families know that this is the best way to educate their young. Don't get into these grey areas at all, remain outside these areas. They are pure and wholesome and know there is no way they can get HIV/Aids."

The Ugandan election boasted three major female political players. As well as Museveni, there is a presidential candidate, Miria Obote, the widow of former president Milton Obote, and opposition candidate Kizza Besigye's wife Winnie Byanyima have been part of his campaign.

During the war that brought president Yoweri Museveni to power Byanyima was his girlfriend and companion. But the two fell out and she has since become one of his fiercest critics. Last month she was charged with libel for claiming that the military had bribed judges to defer her husband's release from prison, where he was held on treason charges.

The ruling party has also courted female voters, endorsing Africa's first female vice-president, Specioza Kazibwe, who was elected in 1994. While vice-president she accused her husband of domestic violence, a common crime in Uganda, and sought a highly public divorce.

"I don't know whether my example is going to inspire women for politics," Museveni said. "You must understand that women in this country have had so many role models, especially at the level at which I am running."

In Ruhama, a region of rolling hills, plump cattle and imposing churches, Museveni's faith strikes a chord among the more devout.

Olive Stempson, a Baptist pastor, agrees with the first lady on condoms. "The curse of HIV came because people were not obedient to God. When you teach people to carry condoms, we may be encouraging immorality."

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