UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: THE SHACKLED MAN ANALOGY

UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: THE SHACKLED MAN ANALOGY.
Preamble: During my gender class, Prof. Tamale Sylvia challenged us with a hypothetical. She called it the shackled man analogy. Imagine that there are two athletes competing for the gold medal (like the one Kiprotich won for Uganda) at the world Olympics. Unfortunately 6 months to the day scheduled for the competition, Runner X is named suspect in a major crime and consequently, is arrested. While in prison, he has no chance of training, he is locked up most of the time and even his diet is restricted.

Meanwhile, Runner Y is being trained by world acclaimed experts in a state of the art stadium comparable to that of the Olympics. His diet is selectively recommended by a nutrition specialist and he often receives physiotherapy just to make sure he is in good state for the competition. Luckily, a few days to the Olympics, it is found following investigations that Runner X was innocent after all and should never have been imprisoned. He is therefore released and he packs his bag in time for the Competition.
Supposing you are the coach and before you there is Runner X and Runner Y. Keeping in mind their special history, would you give Runner X a first leg, that is place him in front of Runner Y? Would this be fair or unfair? Please give reasons for your answer.
Getting into the discussion: The Uganda government in a bid to overcome the historical discrimination against women that resulted in denying girls educational opportunities introduced a policy of giving every girl child who has successfully completed Advanced Level studies, an additional 1.5. This preferential treatment has enabled more girls to be enrolled in the University and to get some of the most coveted courses like medicine, Law, and Engineering.
I am a beneficiary of the Affirmative Action policy of the Government of Uganda aimed at increasing girl child education. Recently this policy has been criticized greatly because; apparently some of the girls who benefit from the additional 1.5 points are from privileged backgrounds. Their parents are rich, and can afford university education; they come from very good schools like Namugongo, Gayaza High, Namagunga, Nabisunsa and the like.

This article is aimed at enabling critics and haters of the 1.5 policy to understand the rationale of the policy and why it is still relevant.

I did not really understand Affirmative Action until I faced the Shackled Man Analogy. My response to that hypothetical was that Runner X should be placed at the same level as Runner Y. it is not Y’s fault that X was imprisoned or that he failed to train while in prison. It would be unfair to Y to give preferential treatment to X. The two should be placed at the same level. This is a competition and it is definite there will be a loser and a winner. If X is the loser, too bad, in another time he might have been the winner.

That was my ignorant, totally inconsiderate and unfair response to the hypothetical. Come to think of it, what is wrong with giving preferential treatment to disadvantaged groups to enable them compete favourably? Historically the girl child has suffered and continues to suffer many injustices. By virtue of a girl being female, she is bound to suffer prejudice in a patriarchal setting like Uganda, regardless of the fact that she is from a rich background.

By the time a girl gets the 1.5 points, she has passed the threshold test set for both boys and girls, that is successfully completing the A level Course. Therefore affirmative Acton cannot be said to offend the principle of meritocracy because the beneficiaries have satisfied the required minimum qualification. Secondly, if the girls are now more in Law School, what is wrong with that? This is a course that was previously dominated by men and a look at the catalogue of Law Firms in Uganda will confirm to you that almost 90% of them are owned by men. What affirmative action is doing is increasing diversity and trust me, there are social benefits to that.

Instead of demanding that some girls stop benefiting from the policy, seekers of social justice should demand that the government recognizes other bases of discrimination apart from gender. For instance the government should introduce a policy that benefits economically disadvantaged boys and girls from across Uganda to enable them access higher education. The 1.5 policy is still valid and relevant as long as we continue to see gender disparities in society that negatively and discriminately affect women only. It is one way of achieving gender equality particularly regarding access to higher education.

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3 thoughts on “UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: THE SHACKLED MAN ANALOGY

  1. Using the same analogy- at what point does Runner X eventually measure up to Runner Y? At what point will the idea of affirmative action become pointless? Will that point ever be achieved? And what is the benchmark/ signs that will show that that point has been achieved? More girls in certain sectors? ( that has already happened) fewer males in formerly male dominated areas? (Isn’t this already happening too?)

    1. Thanks EK for the comment. As long as Runner x continue to suffer a disadvantange, he/she deserves a first leg. I believe that one day, the disparaties between opportunities available for men and women will not be as grave as they are today. I believe that we can achieve substantive equality and at that point we wont need affirmative action geared towards gender balance, although we may need affirmative action geared at solving other social inequalities.
      The aim is not to replace men. Let me use the example of law school. More girls are enrolling to join law school, but the Boys are also enrolling. The numbers of the boys enralling has not dwindled and that is a good thing. At the end of the day, we have almost an equal number of boys and girls at the law school. That is the aim of Affirmative Action.

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