Tuesday, October 28, 2008
by Pilirani Semu-Banda
No political meeting happens in Malawi without song and dance. Clad in colorful political party regalia, women and girls are the traditional singers and dancers for the country’s political parties. They sing adoring songs of praise for the political leaders they support and mock those who represent political interests different from their own. The majority of Malawi’s politicians are men.
As the country’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections draw closer, the women of Malawi want to move away from being mere singers and dancers; 425 women have mobilized to contest for the country’s 193 parliamentary positions in next May’s elections.
An aspiring MP Margret Nyakondowe says she is contesting because she understands the challenges facing people, especially women and children, better than any man.
"I am a mother and I know the needs of mothers in this country. I would like to see an end to those challenges and I will advocate for them in Parliament," says Nyakondowe.
The quest for more political positions for women is being championed by 42 civil society groups under the NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO GCN) and the country’s Ministry of Women. Technical and financial support is coming from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Canadian International Development Agency, Action Aid International, Danish Church Aid, OXFAM-GB, GTZ and the Royal Norwegian Embassy.
In July, the campaigners launched a national program to increase women’s representation and participation in politics and decision-making positions – the crusade has been dubbed the 50:50 campaign. Its primary goal is to have 50 percent or more women holding parliamentary positions after the 2009 elections.
Lilian Patel, Chairperson of the Malawi Parliamentary Women Caucus and a current MP, says the women are not asking for special favors, just to be given a chance to be part of the country’s development.
"We always work extra hard as women in Parliament. We want to see women and the whole nation prosper. We have the people's interest at heart," says Patel, who has been an MP for 14 years.
The battle promises to be tough since the targets set are much higher than the number of women who currently hold decision making positions; at the moment there is only a 14 percent representation of women in Parliament, 16 percent in the executive arm of government and 12 percent in the judiciary.
“Malawi has made unsatisfactory strides in getting more women into Parliament,” worries Minister of Women and Child Development, Anna Kachikho, especially since the country is party to various international and regional instruments which call for the involvement of women in decision-making positions. Malawi has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender and Development Declaration, the Beijing Declaration, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the African Union Solemn Declaration of Gender Equality.
Already, hurdles against the women aspirants are emerging from the country’s major political parties – some leaders in constituencies are literally blocking women from contesting. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has set up excessive primary elections participation fees to hinder women from contesting, while the major opposition party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), has declared that it will not give any special treatment to its women parliamentary candidates.
“Of course the elections are a competition, but men already have an unfair advantage over women, partly because of their well established financial capacity,” says executive director of the Association for Progressive Women (APW), Reen Kachere. According to government gender statistics, only 23 percent of women in Malawi have an equal or greater say in economic decisions at home.
“With start up financial incentives for women, the situation could be reversed to ensure sustainable women participation in politics and decision making,” says Kachere.
Under the 50:50 program, each candidate will be trained in assertiveness, advocacy, lobbying and campaigning. They will also receive $700 as start-up campaign money and media exposure.
But according to NGO GCN board chairperson Emma Kaliya, violence also deters women from participating in politics. Reports of violence and harassment always occur in Malawi, especially in the run-up to elections. Fights have already been broken up this month as different political parties hold parliamentary primary elections.
This unruly behavior by male parliamentarians discourages many women from contesting and the use of insults against women MPs is ever present in the Malawi national assembly.
The leader of opposition in Parliament, John Tembo, recently accused women in Parliament of getting cosmetic surgery. While making the remark, he pointed at the Minister of Information, Patricia Kaliati, one of the women in Parliament who is well-groomed. Some women MPs have even been called prostitutes, ugly and unmarried.
“MPs should tone down the language they use against women. This is a sad development because the shortage of women in the House is affecting discussions that affect them. For instance, issues to do with maternal deaths and property grabbing are not discussed,” says Kaliya.
But those championing the 50:50 campaign continue to encourage women’s participation in the coming elections despite these impediments. Through UNFPA, the United Nations in Malawi believes that a critical mass of women in politics tends to influence public priorities and helps to keep gender equality, women’s rights and issues of reproductive health rights high on the agenda of public policies and budgets.
Says UNFPA gender expert Veronica Njikho, “UNFPA is committed to helping the Malawi government and other civil society organizations that are championing the 50:50 campaign to ensure that they strengthen the skills of women aspirants for them to run successful campaigns.”
Njikho also says the UN would like to see political parties provided with the skills necessary to ensure that conducive political space is provided to women contestants and that the general populace is mobilized to support women candidates during the elections.
The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), which facilitates elections in the country and boasts 50 percent female representation, also supports the effort. The chairperson of the electoral body, Anastasia Msosa, has since appealed to traditional, political and religious leaders to make deliberate efforts to encourage more female participation in the 2009 electoral process.
Msosa observes that the active participation of women is vital considering that females in the country make up 60 percent of the electorate. “It would be great to see women use their voting power to be in power,” says Msosa.
But it is not only women that want to see the number of women increase. A prominent male civil rights activist in the country, Unandi Banda, says it is vital to choose women for parliamentary positions as they know social and economic problems much better than most men because women and girls in Malawi suffer most in terms of securing basic resources like water and firewood.
“Women are better placed to come up with policies that could improve the people’s lives,” says Banda. “For example, the lone member of parliament for the opposition Alliance for Democracy, Loveness Gondwe, always gives constructive criticisms during parliamentary debates. Most male MPs just make unnecessary noise.”
A district commissioner in Malawi’s southern district of Chikwawa, Lowford Palani, says that every nation requires the full involvement of women to develop.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Undule Mwakasungula agrees with the sentiments that it is the women that know best the socioeconomic problems confronting the country.
“Look at the long distances women travel to the nearest health center for health care, only to be told there are no drugs. Look at the long distances they cover to fetch water,” says Mwakasungula. Most women and girls in Malawi travel an average of 5 kilometers per day to collect water, carrying a container that holds about 20 kilograms of water on their heads. The average person in Malawi travels 20 kilometers to reach the nearest health center.
Like the many of the people who support these women in their fight for parliament, I believe women make better leaders than men. The women in the Malawi Parliament and those in decision-making positions are rarely implicated in corruption cases. They're more honest and have the people's interest at heart; issues of national importance like the environment, health and education get more attention from women parliamentarians.
The Malawi government through the Ministry of Women and Child Development has since pledged its commitment to ensure that women have equal access to parliamentary seats.
UNFPA Resident Representative in Malawi, Esperance Fundira, says the program to increase women in politics is not just about numbers. Citing the critical role women parliamentarians played in getting the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill passed into law in 2006 she says, “There is overwhelming evidence from within Malawi on the difference women bring to the table when they are in key decision making positions. We must remember that by empowering a woman, the whole nation tends to benefit and we stand a better chance of achieving the Millennium Development Goals and making gender equality a reality.”