When a few women sit in parliament and boardrooms, so what?
On March 8, 2017, I woke up in a cheerful mood to go and teach my students. Among other areas of economics, I teach Ugandan economy. Among other topics, I teach the growth perspectives for Uganda, where we discuss with my students the development challenges Uganda faces and the opportunities to overcome them.
When I reached Makerere University Business School (MUBS), I noticed the campus was unusually dull and quiet. I inquired from the security guy manning the main entrance and he reminded me, “Don’t you know that today is Women’s Day?”
Truth is, I felt bad. I felt bad because I had prepared a lecture on human development in Uganda. I wanted to share with the young Ugandans a few facts about their country. Some of them include: the average distance to the main source of drinking water, which is a kilometer – with 27% of Ugandans competing with the ecosystem to get water.
The percentage of population with access to electricity is 18%, while that with houses roofed in with iron sheets or other permanent materials is 68% – meaning that the rest (32%) still sleep in grass. The percentage that uses only one room for sleeping is 44% in rural Uganda, and 68% in Kampala.
Infant mortality rate (death of children under 5 years per 1000) stands at 55, maternal mortality is as has in recent years risen to 438 mothers per 100,000. Imagine, 438 mothers per every 100,000 losing their lives while trying to give another person(s) a life!
I also wanted to tell them the percentage of the percentage of households that do not use any toilet facility (10%), and how it is as high as 70% in Karamoja, 24% in the North, and 12% in Eastern Uganda.
How Ugandan women suffer
After that, I wanted to tell my students, majority of whom are girls, what happened in the developed countries (Western Europe and North America) over the past 200 years. Investment in human development and technological changes, provided the engines of liberation of women.
These investments by their governments significantly reduced women’s work in the form of meal preparation, laundry, cleaning, fetching water, and rearing of children. When women got access to gas and electric cookers, washing machines, piped water, and waged house helpers, they spared time to do all that men could do.
Yet I could not meet my students because they were home watching TV as their leaders fed them on recycled speeches of women emancipation.
Mr. President, am not a women but I guess every woman in Uganda needs, first and foremost, liberation from very simple things, most of which are related to relying on rudimentary technologies to do housework.
Women in Uganda are being killed by lung cancer not because they are smokers. It is caused by cooking with firewood and/or charcoal. They age with broken backs as a result of washing mountains of clothes with hands.
Ugandan women are fetching water from open wells a couple of kilometers away. They are rearing so many children without a helper. Most importantly, they are delivering their babies in unsafe hands of traditional birth attendants or ill-trained medical personnel and ill-equipped facilities
Government investing in ‘observables’
Many of them rely on men financially, are sexually abused by their employers especially at the time of job searching and/or promotion. These are the things you, as leaders should do for women; not giving long speeches every 8th of March to mothers working like donkeys just to survive.
I understand most of you African leaders, surprisingly women leaders inclusive, are more obsessed with things that do not matter a lot for most women – political emancipation and gender equality (whatever it means).
Mr. President, two years ago, on this very day, I wrote in these very pages a piece that pointed you to the fact that thousands of women in Uganda are still living with the constant fear and frequent reality that their children will die.
This the main reason an average Ugandan woman still produces children on a calculus basis – give birth to 9 children, 4 might die. Sickness and death of children, endless recurring of morbidity for mothers and high poverty are partners that often visit the same families in Uganda.
Mr. President, the world is getting healthier than at any time in the past. People live longer, they are taller and stronger, and their children are less likely to be sick or to die. In Uganda, the progress in good health is very slow and at times stagnant.
Why? It’s because your government, Mr. President, prefers, for political reasons, investing more in ‘observables’ (highways, dams, buildings and consumer goods) to investing in health and education.
For example, you refused to pay nurses, doctors and teachers a reasonable wage. Research has found that absenteeism is one of the biggest scandals in Uganda’s healthcare and education systems. Most health workers, just like their colleagues in teaching, have cited poor and irregular pay as the main cause of their misconduct.
So it is as if there were an implicit contract between them and government; the government pretends to pay them, and they also pretend to treat people or teach our children.
The pros of an educated mother
And as I often say, ‘results are out’. Two recent researches (conducted by Harvard School of Public Health and Imperial College London) have found that anthropometric poverty is a rise in Uganda. This is poverty related to nutrition, measured by height-for-age and weight-for-height.
The researchers found that most Ugandans, particularly women, are getting shorter than their parents and grandparents. In economics, and I guess in science as well, we know that the most likely reason a new generation can get shorter than their parents is falling real incomes and nutrition. But also the education and health of women matter a lot.
Women are key determinant of household health and nutrition. Educated mothers feed their children on quality food as opposed to quantity. I vividly remember my childhood back in Butambala. My mother, one of the best primary school teachers to have walked this land, did not earn a lot of money, as most teachers do.
However, I remember her efforts to feed us on proteins (which are often more expensive) at a relatively more regular rate compared to our neighbours. She spent every penny she earned on two key things: feeding us relatively well, and paying for our education.
From our humble beginning, we all (my siblings and I) escaped anthropometric poverty and by extension most of the other dimensions of poverty – income, literacy, morbidity, mortality, and malnutrition.
The number of calories consumed by especially children matter a lot. Calories are measures of energy an individual needs to spend a day to remain healthy. The average daily number of calories a person needs is 2000, according to World Health Organisation (WHO). An adult man working in subsistence agriculture or engaged in any other physical work may need to consume at least 3000 calories per day.
How are calories determined?
A cup of black tea without sugar has one calorie, as in a single calorie, while a cup of milk has 264 calories. In most of the families in Ugandan, all household members, including children, drink black tea (some of them without sugar). In many families, milk is reserved for children.
Often people accompany the hot water with kilograms of cassava or sweet potatoes or maize. Yet 100g of potatoes contain only 77 calories. To get to the required 2000 or 3000 calories a day, most children in Uganda have to eat 4kgs of potatoes. Since no (normal) human being can eat 4kgs of food a day, most Ugandans will remain malnourished. On average a ‘normal’ human being consumes 1.8kg of food per day.
I crosschecked with the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) to establish whether they compile data on the average heights of Ugandans by region and district. Unfortunately, they don’t. By the way this also partly explains the tragedy that befell this country. If critical data, such as this, is not gathered, then what do policymakers base on to plan for the country?
Well, I can use anecdotal evidence across the country. When you look around the country, the staple food in each region may easily explain the differences in average heights of Ugandans. Taller Ugandans reside in the north (including Karamoja), parts of far east (Teso), parts of west (mainly the cattle corridor), and some parts of central Uganda (the peri-urban belt around Lake Victoria). The average short Ugandan resides in extreme west (Kasese, Bundibugyo), mid-east (Busoga region), and rural central Uganda.
If one took keen observation, you will realise that people whose staples are rich in calories, such as those in the north (millet, and animal products in Karamoja), the cattle corridor in the west (animal products), urban and peri-urban central (all proteins courtesy of relatively higher incomes), and parts of Kigezi (Irish potatoes, millet and vegetables), are relatively taller.
Information from WHO indicates that 100g of beef contain 250 calories while a 100g of beans contain only 75 calories. Similarly, 250g of rice contain 205 calories while the same quantity of maize contains 117 calories only. The same quantity of Matooke (the ganda’s main dish) contains only 68 calories, while the same amount of millet contains 207 calories. A single egg contains 91 calories, while a piece of cassava weighing an equivalent of 4 eggs contains 86 calories.
I often tell my students, whom I teach development economics and Ugandan economy, that their generation must strive to break these nutritional rigidities. There is need for ‘creative destruction’ by discarding some traditional values and dishes that many Ugandans adhere to yet they retard their own transformation.
I will return to this subject in the near future and show what the NRM government needs to do to pragmatically empower women and the young generation, at the lowest trade-off.