Women empowerment has always been tough in a country where patriarchy is dominant. The number of women in Parliament keeps on fluctuating. During the 2019 Tripartite Elections 45 women won to Parliamentary seats. When three constituencies held by women in Ntchisi, Phalombe and Nsanje had by-elections, they were all taken by men, thereby reducing the number of the women in Parliament to 42.
Women empowerment campaigners were disappointed, but not frustrated. They kept pushing.
“We will only stop when there is equal representation in Parliament. Women are more than men in the country and they need more representation. So, we may be down but not out,” said 50:50 Campaign Management Agency team leader Viwemi Chavula.
He admitted that he expected women to win in constituencies where they held but added that they would keep on finding ways of helping them until the mission is accomplished.
Engaging political parties
One of the areas women campaigners spotted as a solution to change the low numbers of women in Parliament was political parties. They hold key because if women can be given high positions in political parties, chances of them being elected to Parliament are high.
A report by the Joint Domestic Gender Delegation Team on the 2019 Tripartite Elections found, among others, that political party primaries displayed systematic efforts towards barring women from actively participating in leadership positions.
“During primary elections, The 50:50 Management Agency received over 30 complaints from women that are related to irregularities in management of primary elections.
“It is important to note that party politics is not gender neutral and that female politicians critically lacked the assets that male politicians possessed when they entered the political arena,” said the report.
There is also talk of enacting a gender quota for women where each district should have a parliamentary seat reserved for women. The country has 28 districts which means 28 seats will be on the cards.
Against this background, gender activists decided to engage political parties. And this happened on August 26 2021.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP)
They first engaged MCP, who showed its commitment by sending a delegation of the party’s three top gurus secretary general Eisenhower Mkaka, director of elections Elias Chakwera and regional chairperson for the North Kens Msukwa to teh talks with the gender activists.
Mkaka said the party supports gender representation as evidenced by the 60-40 appointment of ambassadors.
“Let me make it clear that women are as good as men, probably better in leadership positions. Currently, there are constituency re-demarcations and that will be considered,” he said.
But the secretary general said he feels proportional representation is better than gender quota in the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system Malawi is currently using during elections.
“There is fear that when these women [elected in gender quota] enter Parliament, they will be called names like ‘strangers’ because they will not have constituencies to present.
“There is also fear that these female legislators will be called super women because they will be representing the whole district. This might force MPs to vote against it,” said Mkaka, who is also Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He, however, said those concerns and fears do not sway the position of the MCP as a party because it has always supported women to ensure that they are at the top.
On his part, Msukwa said women have been put in top positions because they understand that they are more than men.
“For example, the Speaker of Parliament [Catherine Gotani Hara] is a woman, so too is one of her deputies [Aisha Adams]. The clerk of Parliament [Fiona Kalemba] is also a woman.
“The head of Anti-Corruption Bureau [Martha Chizuma] and the Ombudsman [Grace Malera] are women. This is because we accept, believe and understand that in most cases, women look at issues soberly,” he said.
But gender activist Emma Kaliya said it would not be a problem for MCP to have special seats for women or having them in top party structures.
“When MCP was previously in power, we used to have nominated members where many women were being appointed. So since the party has that record, it will be easy to help the women,” she said.
United Democratic Front (UDF)
Six officials represented the party at the talks. They were secretary general Kandi Padambo, a representative of director of legal affairs Innocent Baisi, national organising secretary Abubaker Mbaya, director of elections Clement Stambuli, the party’s chief whip in Parliament Rodrick Khumbanyiwa and director of women Margaret Uladi.
Stambuli said much as the UDF supports gender quota, it would be better if the country switched from FPTP to proportional representation (PR) or to any system that can ably assist the women.
“The current system is tough because, in many cases, when you make a deliberate policy by fielding a female candidate, but a rival party fields a man with tremendous resources, it is difficult for the female candidates to win.
“All this is done because of lack of enforcement of the law that bars the use of money to entice voters during campaigns. This is the reason I am saying that PR is good because it is the party that chooses legislators and not constituents. This can ably and easily increase the number of women in Parliament,” he said.
Stambuli disclosed that when UDF was in power and MCP in opposition, a suggestion was raised to switch to PR.
“However, political figures then, said that since the system was new, it was important to study it first. One wonders what needed to be learnt and why it should take that long,” he said.
Padambo observed that since issues of women empowerment have been dragging for a long time, it is important to revisit them by taking them seriously.
He said gender quota may take time to be accepted by all for different reasons ranging from the issue being a threat to some parties who would not want to lose seats to women.
Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham Nic Cheeseman said that sometimes PR can have disadvantages in the sense that people feel disconnected from their political representatives.
He cited the cases of South Africa and Mozambique where such problems exist.
Padambo admitted to the problem of PR. He, however, said that there was need to have a PR model that is suitable for Malawi.
The party was represented by five officials namely; national organising secretary Willie Karonga, director of legal affairs Yasin Maoni, national director of elections Bright Kawanga, the party’s chief whip in Parliament Chrispin Mphande and director of women Annie Makuta.
Mphande emphasised the need to consult the grassroots on the matter because, he said, their inputs are key to political correctness.
“Remember that we had a female president and while we thought that time had come for them to take up leadership positions, people rejected her. This is the reason I suggested about grassroots consultation,” he said.
Mphande, however, suggested that while it is important to have more women in leadership positions, it is also important to just nominate them and not subject them to elections.
He gave an example of Kenya where the system is in force and all political parties are abiding by it.
Mphande insisted that people should be educated about gender issues, especially in a country where patriarchy is dominant.
“Even members of Parliament [MPs] need civic education before they take the messages to their constituents. This is because being an MP does not mean that you know everything. So if they take wrong information, the whole women empowerment movement will be a disaster,” he said.
Maoni noted that much as the gender quota is good, it would be costly to Malawi. He said the current number of MPs is already expensive, therefore, adding more seats will be too much to the payroll.
“And you question: Are 28 seats enough for women? We need to devise a strategy that will help increase the number of women in Parliament without increasing the cost,” he said.
Chief gender officer in the Ministry of Gender, Community Services and Social Welfare Peter Yeresani said there is need for continued consultation on the matter, describing it as a journey that will eventually have an end. n