Jessie Kabwila is a household name that does not need much introduction. She is one of the people who took the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s government under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over academic freedom. She thereafter became active in various causes that include early marriages, safe abortion and gay rights. She has been nominated for this year’s United States (US) Secretary of State International Women of Courage Award in recognition of her role in the fight for academic freedom and women’s rights. This is her second nomination. Caroline Somanje speaks with the dynamic Kabwila. Excerpts:
How do these nominations make you feel?
I am humbled that the US Embassy has appreciated and recognised my efforts at fighting for the downtrodden. I feel honoured that some people, an organisation as well known and established as this one that is located in Malawi has seen my efforts to speak truth to power.
Did you ever dream of becoming an activist in your life?
I have always been an activist. I come from parents who believe in speaking the truth at all times and standing for what they believe. My mother is a living example of that. She brought me up to stand up for what I am convinced is true, being resilient, even in the face of castigation and atrocity.
This seems like quite a prestigious recognition. Does it symbolise success in your activism role?
Yes it does. It also signals the recognition of Malawians as activists, national recognition of the academics of Chancellor College, whose voice I was articulating, the people who spurred me on and believe in me. It symbolises that Malawians are a people who believe in their constitution and will not sit idle whilst someone mutates their constitution.
Looking back at the academic freedom fight, would you say it motivated you to join politics?
Yes. That struggle illustrated that academics have a say in what happens in the country and they can lead the country to justice and freedom. That was a struggle between the proverbial David and Goliath and the triumph and success of Chancellor College. Walking for 250 days, standing up to a tyrannical system that used threats, castigation and violence illustrated that politics is something that impacts academics. Our stand for academic freedom gave Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (Ccasu) a chance to shorten the space between the village, street and classroom, sometimes turning the country to a class room. It showed me that politics can be done from a principled position.
What difference do you intend to bring politically?
Non recycled politics, clean, principled and gendered politics that is a service to the majority poor, rural and urban. I would like to show that one can do politics that is not to make one rich but one that is based on sacrifice, like I have sacrificed my job, career and economic cushion in many ways. I want to show Malawians that there are women who are competent leaders, women who do not use gender as an excuse for mediocrity and incompetence; women who do not parade ignorance as a defense for failure to develop the country. I want to open more doors for women leaders by being good at what I do, being good at being publicity secretary and Member of Parliament for Salima North West.
What is your assessment of early marriages in the country and the drive to ending it?
Early marriages are a huge problem. They are contributing to health hazards met by the girl child and women such as maternal death and cervical cancer. They are intimately linked to the high dropout rates of girls and women in our educational system. The problem is that steps to combat this problem do not hit at the patriarchy that constructs women as sex objects, mothers and wives first and foremost. I think we need more programmes reconstructing girls and women empowerment, personhood and self determination. We need male involvement in women empowerment programmes.
You have been in the fight for gay rights. What is your stance?
My stance as an individual, not as Malawi Congress Party (MCP) spokesperson, is that I have done research on homosexuality issues and there is concrete evidence that we have Malawians who are gay. The 24.5 per cent HIV transmission rate in men having sex with men (MSM) groups means Malawi has to engage this reality if it wants to have a zero infection rate. If we ignore it, it is as good as leaving one hole open and saying we want to seal the whole bucket so it stops leaking. The fact that we do not give condoms in prisons when we know that there is male-to-male sex happening there, puts the wives of those men when they leave prison at risk. It also endangers the prisoners themselves.
Briefly tell me about your involvement with safe abortion?
This is another area I have done research on. I think we need to accept that there are lives of women that are being lost because of unsafe abortions. We need to make sure women are not dying due to inserting objects in their bodies.
Can you tell me the specifics you intend to tackle once you make it to Parliament?
I am interested in representing the urgent issues making the lives of Salima North West a nightmare which are, absence of a hospital. The people from Mnema are in real trouble, women are dying on their way to hospital due to long distances between that area and the only health centre in the constituency.
Farmers in this area need help so that they do not remain with coupons and not have fertiliser. This is an area that has suffered because of the politicisation of service delivery. When there is hunger, Salima North West people are bypassed. They see maize going to places where there is the sitting government’s members of parliament, as if they are not Malawians.
Access to water is a big problem. Women and girl children are really having a hard time. They walk long distances to get water for the family.
The youth of this constituency are not making it into institutions of higher learning such as the university. I would like to see how we can help to improve the education system so that more of them go as far as they can and there are more Jessie Kabwila’s in this area. This can only happen when there are enough primary schools, secondary schools and institutions of higher learning including vocational training. Teachers need to be paid in time.
Job creation is paramount as there are many youths just drinking and not doing anything substantial.
What will be your next move should the Malawi Electoral Commission maintain its stance to bar you for contesting?
I will appeal as far as I can. If there is possibility to take this even as far as Africa Union, I will do so. There are people who have been allowed to stand yet they are civil servants. I am not even being paid, some are being paid. Others are only applying for leave as I am writing, yet they have been allowed to stand. I will fight this unfair thing till the end of my breadth. It is wrong and unfair.
Do you have ambitions beyond Parliament in future?
For now, I am focusing on getting into Parliament and I will take it from there. One thing at a time.
Who is Jessie Kabwila?
The first born of Mr. and Mrs. Kabwila, mother to Louisa Kabwila. I am trained in comparative literature specialising in transnational feminisms and is publicity secretary for MCP. Jessie fiercely believes in speaking the truth to power and representing those that cannot occupy the spaces she has been privileged to open for herself and occupy.
Tell me about your upbringing and educational background?
I am the first born of four children, three women and one man, in the order of Sindi, Linda and Kondwani. I grew up in Zimbabwe after my parents left this country. They had to leave when Jehovah’s Witnesses were being persecuted during the old MCP days. I did primary, secondary schools in Zimbabwe then came back home to do university studies. I hold a first and honours degrees in Education, Masters in Humanities and Ph.D in Comparative Literature, from State of New York, Binghamton University. I enjoy debate and political analysis.
Do you have a man behind your success?
Yes, my dad. He has been more than inspirational. He has walked the talk of gender equality. From a young age, he showed me that real men are not afraid of strong women. Jessie is as good if not better than any man. It is about hard work and being focused at what you are doing.