Why affirmative action may not be the answer

Last week it was reported that male applicants had dominated the University of Rwanda’s maiden admission list – at 69 per cent, or 6,544 places against 2,899 female places.
Gitura Mwaura
Gitura Mwaura

Last week it was reported that male applicants had dominated the University of Rwanda’s maiden admission list – at 69 per cent, or 6,544 places against 2,899 female places.

This seemed to raise some uproar. But four months earlier – in March 2014 in this same paper – there was an unlikely headline: “More girls graduate at Inilak”.

The UR admission list portrayed the better known picture: That, the factors that make attaining higher education much more difficult for many female students in Rwanda, as in most African settings, often include negative socio-cultural attitudes in their homes and communities, and a historical under-representation in most aspects of society because of existing patriarchal structures.

Asked whether affirmative action would be an option in increasing the number of female students, UR’s Vice-Chancellor Prof. James McWha said it was not in the immediate plans of the university.

I will not second-guess Prof. McWha.

Affirmative action generally means giving preferential treatment to minorities, who include women and girls, in public and private spheres such as in admission to universities or employment in government and businesses.

Proponents of affirmative action assert that special preference is given to minorities to make up for previous discrimination, and that it is needed to break stereotypes – gender or otherwise.

That it gives everyone an equal chance by helping disadvantaged people without many opportunities to be able to advance where they otherwise could not.

There are many pro and con arguments for or against affirmative action. But those who disagree observe that while women may be considered less capable than men in some socio-cultural settings, and that it has taken affirmative action to give them the opportunity to show they are every bit as capable, affirmative action is, nevertheless, reverse discrimination.

They argue that past discrimination against women and certain minority groups does not justify present discrimination against men and non-minorities.

The matter has variously been put to test, with one of the most cited instances being US Justice Antonin Scalia’s 1989 judgment in the case of City of Richmond vs. J. A. Croson Company, in which the business company won.

After losing a contract, the J.A. Croson Company had gone to the US Supreme Court to contest the City Council of Richmond requirement that city construction contracts must subcontract 30 percent of their business to minority business enterprises.

In his ruling, Justice Scalia found that the “difficulty of overcoming the effects of past discrimination is as nothing compared with the difficulty of eradicating from our society the source of those effects, which is the tendency … to classify and judge men and women on the basis of their country of origin or the colour of their skin. A solution to the first problem that aggravates the second is no solution at all.”

The same case may be made in classifying and judging men and women on the basis of their gender.

That more girls than boys could graduate at Inilak is big news not just for Rwanda, but for Africa; which, perhaps, is an indication that we probably ought to start rethinking our basis for affirmative action in this part of the woods.

But Prof. McWha had an answer about why UR was not ready for it just yet.

I hold no brief for him or for the UR, but he is quoted to have responded that, “We [the University of Rwanda] are not looking at positive discrimination. Female students perform well in exams but it seems to be an issue of personal aspirations or family expectations. We propose to work with schools and the community to resolve this and ensure that female students achieve everything they are capable of.”

I think he had a point.

The writer is a commentator on local and regional issues

Twitter: @gituram