Campaigners fighting for quotas for women recently gathered at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre to strategise.
This has come with the background that during the 2019 parliamentary elections, only 45 women were elected out of 193 seats. The number was later reduced to 42 due to deaths and court’s nullification of results.
After the 2019 Tripartite Elections, the 50:50 Campaign Management Agency and other gender activists complained that many women cannot compete with men in elections because of a number of things such as finances and cultural beliefs where they are put second.
Mixed bag for women
The performance of women in parliamentary elections since the 1994 Tripartite Elections has been a mixed bag and unsatisfactory.
In 1994, out of 587 contestants, only 46 were women, representing 7.84 percent. Out of 177 Members of Parliament that won, only 10 were women, representing 5.65 percent.
In 1999, 668 contested and 62 were women, representing 9.28 percent. The number of women that went to Parliament rose from 10 to 16, representing 8.29 percent.
Things looked promising in 2004 when more women were elected to Parliament. Out of the 154 that contested, 27 won, representing 13.9 percent.
There was more jubilation among women in 2009 when 237 women out of 1 175 contestants showed political interest by joining the race. This represented 20.17 percent. Those that went to Parliament were 42, representing 21.7 percent.
But there was disbelief and frustration in 2014 where, although more women contested (261), those that were elected went down from 42 to 32, representing 16.5 percent.
Probably fearing the worst, there was talk about the need for gender quota in Parliament. On July 2 2021, 50:50 campaigners, supported by The Commonwealth and supervised by Malawi Government convened a meeting aimed at finding a way forward as regards the gender quota.
Professor Luis Franceschi from the Commonwealth secretariat said his organisation supports and encourages Malawi to engage in political reforms dialogue.
“Our democracies can only move forward when the periods between elections are filled with inclusive and constructive democratic reforms and conversations.
“Democracy cannot thrive without the valuable contribution of women. Therefore, we must contribute to demand, encourage and strengthen reforms, policies and legislation that enable women’s transformational leadership capacities to be exercised to the full measure of their potential for the benefit of our democracies, our members and humanity,” he said.
Ondina da Barca Vieira from UN Women also expressed the need for electoral gender reforms which, she noted, provides an opportunity to consolidate actions that can be undertaken to ensure that Malawi’s electoral laws are gender sensitive thus improve women’s political participation.
Vieira expressed worry that although women comprise about 52 percent of the population, very few are elected in leadership positions.
“For instance, during the recently held 2019 Tripartite Elections, 309 women presented themselves for parliamentary positions and only 45 were elected, representing 6.8 percent. This translates to 23 percent of women representation in the 193-member chamber.
“On the other hand, during the same 2019 Tripartite Elections, 659 women presented themselves for election into local councils and only 66 were elected as councilors, representing 9.9 percent. Obviously, the figures are alarmingly low,” she said.
A thorn in the fresh
Principal Secretary for administration in the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Isaac Katopola said discussions about electoral reforms, including gender quota which, he said, has been a thorn in the flesh has been ongoing for a while.
Katopola said the matter has not died as Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) and National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) are championing the cause.
“In 2014, Malawi embarked on reforming the electoral laws with the leadership of the Malawi Electoral Commission [MEC] to ensure that the processes resonated with the tenets of democracy.
“The gender sector was fully represented in the processes from consultations stage to the composition of the task force and law commission,” said the principal secretary.
Katopola said the commission recommended legislated reserved seats which provided for one female seat per district. Since Malawi has 28 districts, women were supposed to have 28 seats.
He said the commission made the recommendation following what other countries like Uganda and Tanzania do.
According to him, Uganda reserves 112 seats (one per district) for women while Tanzania reserves 30 percent of seats for women.
But Katopola disclosed that the amendment was referred back to the Ministry (of Gender) by the Cabinet in 2018.
“The reasons included the need to clarify implementation mechanisms of the quota such as the jurisdiction and authority of the seat, the constituents to be represented by the district-based member of Parliament, the role of district elected female members of Parliament as compared to the roles of all constituency elected members of Parliament and the level of influence of the district elected members of Parliament.
“It was against this background that Cabinet asked the ministry and its stakeholders to come up with an alternative to the proposed electoral gender quota. The reason being that the proposed 28 seats are technically difficult to implement because of reasons highlighted above,” said Katopola.
He said that since government already committed itself to tackle gender quota, it was up to stakeholders to push for it so that Malawi fulfills her international obligation such as those of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Maputo Protocol, Sadc Protocol on Gender and Development and National Gender Policy.
Gender quota type
Professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham Nic Cheeseman said that although there is political will regarding gender quota, it is important to look at the type that suits Malawi.
Cheeseman noted that quotas are more complex under the First-Past-the-Post system of elections than proportional representation.
Viwemi Chavula from the 50:50 Campaign Management Agency said some of the obstacles regarding women empowerment can be resolved when there is will by political parties.
He said that in many cases, parties tend to give key positions to men and leave out women.
“When it is time for primaries, women are pushed away because they cannot compete with men in many sectors, including financial. It is therefore important that political parties should have deliberate policies to uplift women in these positions,” he said.
Gender activist Emma Kaliya called for the strengthening of advocacy on gender quota so that the intended aim is achieved.
She noted that the campaign is not based on planning, but when funds are available.
“For this meeting to happen, it had to take financial support from the Commonwealth. And when they are quiet for the whole year, nothing will be done.
“This is why I say government should show commitment by financially supporting these women empowerment meetings,” she said.