Now that the electoral reform process has started in earnest, the question of women’s political representation is rightly back on the agenda.
Malawian politicians have regularly committed themselves to strengthening the representation of women in politics, and have even agreed that at least 40 percent of Cabinet positions should go to women. Similar commitments exist across the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), where most countries have adopted some kind of quota to ensure that women do not make up less than a third of members of Parliament (MPs) in the legislature.
Yet although the proportion of women in Malawi’s National Assembly has increased over the years, and reached 23 percent at the last election, this is still well below the one-third threshold that is fast becoming a regional norm. In turn, limited women’s representation has contributed to a range of problems, including the gender pay gap and child marriage. It also leaves Malawi looking like the latecomer to the party when compared to countries such as Rwanda and South Africa, which have gained great praise for promoting women in politics.
This was why the 32nd Malawi Law Review Commission conducted a comprehensive review of how to promote women’s representation. The report was released in March 2017. Having extensively engaged widely with key stakeholders, the Commission made several recommendations, including the creation of 28 new electoral constituencies contested only by women candidates. It was proposed that the electoral constituencies for these new seats would be from the country’s 28 administrative districts.
Although the principle of increasing the number of women in Parliament was broadly supported, the benefits and implications of this proposal quickly became controversial. As a result, it was partly rejected by Parliament in the lead-up to the 2019 elections.
In July 2021, the Political Empowerment of Women Technical Working Group (TWG) met and agreed that the best way to promote women’s representation in Malawi was to revisit the recommendations of the Law Commission, modifying them to deal with past concerns and criticism and to make it clear that the women elected from these seats would not be “super women”. In fact, because they would not have access to Constituency Development Funds (CDF), in some ways, they will be less powerful than existing MPs.
The working group reached this conclusion not only because the Law Commission’s proposals had evolved from widespread consultation with politicians, civil society organisations and women’s groups, but also because similar models work very effectively in countries such as Kenya and Uganda. It is therefore clear that when the proposals are properly understood they would both strengthen Malawian democracy and the country’s reputation as a progressive force for good within the continent.
How do quotas work?
Legislative quotas are important because they guarantee that women will make up a certain proportion of the legislator and that a Constitutional threshold— of relevance—will be met. The most common form of legislative quotas in political systems systems such as Malawi’s are directly or indirectly elected reserved seats.
Directly elected reserved seats usually work by creating new seats in which MPs are elected from women-only shortlists at the same time as the general elections. Because only women are allowed to stand in these seats, only women are elected. These new seats therefore guarantee an increase in the proportion of women in Parliament.
Indirectly elected reserved seats work differently. On this model, a certain number of women MPs are added to Parliament after the general election has been held from lists of candidates that are drawn up by party leaders. The parties that win the greatest share of the votes in the legislative election get to have more of the women on their lists added to Parliament. Again, this guarantees that more women make it to Parliament.
The kind of legislative quota recommended by the Law Commission features directly elected reserved seats. The reason for this is that it is more democratic and allows for greater accountability, because voters get to choose the women they want to represent them. As female leaders have to compete to win seats in competitive elections, they are also more likely to develop strong ties with the general public and to learn the skills that they will need to be successful politicians.
This is the type of quota that operates in Kenya, which shares a similar political system to Malawi. In the Kenyan case, the electoral system was adjusted to allow for direct election of additional 47 women to the National Assembly as a way of moving towards a new Constitutional requirement that no more than two-thirds of the legislature may come from the same gender.
The Kenyan women’s representatives are elected on the basis of the 47 counties created in the 2010 constitution, partly because it would have been too expensive and cumbersome to have a “women only” seat and a “men only” seat for each of the country’s existing 210 constituencies. That would have meant creating 210 more MPs, doubling the size of the National Assembly!
For a similar reason, the Law Commission did not recommend having a “women only” and “male only” seat for all of Malawi’s 193 constituencies. Instead, they made a much more modest proposal that 28 women be elected on the basis of the country’s 28 districts.
This is a fairly cheap proposal compared to the alternatives, and it means adding much fewer women MPs than other countries in Africa have done. For example, Kenya has 47 seats that are reserved for women while Uganda has 112. The Law Commission’s proposal therefore represents the minimum possible change to bring the country into line with international best practice. If the 28 new seats had been introduced in the 2019 general elections, the number of women elected to the National Assembly would have only just crept over 33 percent.
Quotas do not create “super women”
When the idea of 28 directly elected women MPs was first introduced, there was considerable confusion about how the scheme was going to be implemented and what effects it would have. Some people worried that the new MPs would be superwomen with greater powers and more authority than existing MPs.
It is therefore important to make it very clear that this is not the case. Women elected through the district seats would not have any more powers than Malawi’s current MPs. Indeed, because the new MPs would not have Constituency Development Funds, and would not attend constituency level meetings unless specifically invited by the constituency MP, they would in some ways have less power. In countries such as Kenya, for example, most politicians would rather be elected as constituency MPs in the normal way than as women’s representatives through the county seats.
Given this, the new MPs would hardly be superwomen!
The 28 MPs elected through quota seats would also have no additional powers in Parliament. Some people have asked whether the fact that they would be elected on the basis of districts would mean they would have more power because they would be voted for by more people. This would not be the case—all MPs would have exactly the same rights and responsibilities in Parliament.
It is easy to see this if we think about Malawi’s existing 193 MPs. Some MPs are elected on the basis of constituencies with just a few thousand voters, such as Likoma Island.
Some are elected on the basis of constituencies with hundreds of thousands of voters, such as Lilongwe City Council. The MPs elected from constituencies with more registered voters don’t have more power—all MPs have the same rights once they enter the National Assembly.
It would be exactly the same for the 28 new district MPs.
Realising the benefits
When understood in this way, it is clear that the proposal of the Law Commission would not disrupt or harm Malawian politics in any way.
The new MPs would not have super-powers, and there would be no need for tension with the existing constituency MPs because there would be no competition between the two for resources or territory.
Instead, the proposal would bring about a set of positive changes. Women would be properly represented within Parliament, and Malawians would benefit from another representative to pay special attention to the needs of the youth, women and people with disabilities.
More broadly, strengthening women’s representation would enhance Malawi’s reputation as a beacon for democracy and justice in Africa. The time is now