The primary season is now in full swing. Party members are keenly choosing representatives for the 2019 elections. It is an exciting time. Many a video has been shared on social media showing some candidates with loads of supporters lining up behind them whilst their hapless competitors sit alone. Not even the village stray or the fabled spouse has lined up behind some of these candidates. Whilst these videos have provided comic relief at a time of serious political drama, one concerning issue has come to the fore. Although it is great to see democratic choice at play, it is also clear that women candidates for the forthcoming elections are not doing well. This is particularly the case in areas where the competition is against well-funded male incumbents who have held seats for a season.
Thus, despite the 50:50 Campaign, which seeks to dramatically increase the level of women participation in our democratic institutions, it is clear from the results so far that, collectively, we have not made sufficient preparation to achieve the kind of women participation that we would like to see.
The majority of leaders of our major political formations have endorsed the 50:50 Campaign. Both the UDF’s Atupele Muluzi and the Congress’ Lazarus Chakwera have made video and radio broadcasts indicating that they fully support the initiative. Our Vice-President too has released a video extolling the virtues of womenfolk in positions of authority and responsibility. One can, therefore, safely assume that the UTM will be promoting women candidates when the movement selects its candidates. Thus it is clear that there is strong support from the highest political levels for the candidacy of our mothers and sisters for political office for next year’s election. However, given the results that have emerged so far from the primaries, it is clear that these declarations of support need much more than slick videos and radio adverts.
Old habits die hard and it will take much more than mere lip service to change the levels of participation. Either we talk about enhancing women’s participation in our politics or we actually do something about it. The former is a duff choice; the latter speaks to what is awesome about us! We keep singing about the virtues of our women. Now it is time that we put our money where our mouths are. All the major political parties need to endorse the use of all-women shortlists for a significant number of seats in the forthcoming elections. Given the current numbers of women in Parliament, I would suggest that the major parties reserve at least 50 percent of the constituencies that they will be targeting for all-women lists.
This is a tough choice but it is the only choice. There will be people who will criticise all-women shortlists as anti-democratic, a form of discrimination against men or that it tramples against the competitive principles of democracy. But this is a lazy argument that appeals only to those who do not share concern at the apparent lack of opportunities that our women folk have to endure in our democracy. In the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have made extensive use of all-women shortlists, the strategy has been credited with breaking down prejudices that discouraged women from presenting themselves for candidacy or impeded the selection of women candidates during the primaries. Many other political formations around the world have taken on the issue of gender representation seriously as well. The Norwegian Labour Party for example, requires that each gender is represented by at least 40 percent of the candidates; the Danish Social Democrats also follow a similar rule.
Our political parties can be a source for significant change. The 50:50 Campaign gives us an opportunity for such change. We keep singing about the virtues of our mothers and our sisters. It’s time we showed up! Let’s all support the 50:50 Campaign as if it mattered.
*The author is from Bangwe and sometimes teaches law.