Rwanda, best known for the 1994 genocide that killed nearly a tenth of its population, today shines with 64 percent of women in her parliament—the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world.
Other African countries namely Senegal, Seychelles and South Africa have more than 40 percent each; Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda are not far off, as women occupy over 35 percent of all parliamentary seats.
Where is Malawi? The Warm Heart of Africa stands at 16.6 percent. Before discussing Malawi, let us look at how Rwanda has achieved such an impressive feat.
Rwanda’s Constitution, adopted in 2003, asserts that the representation of women is a fundamental principle that commits to a State governed by the rule of law, a pluralistic democratic government, equality of all Rwandans and between women and men reflected by ensuring that women are granted at least 30 percent of posts in decision-making organs.
In her paper, Rwanda: The Impact of Women Legislators on Policy Outcomes Affecting Children and Families, gender activist Elizabeth Powley, says what is remarkable is not only that Rwanda’s constitutional mandate of 30 percent has been respected with regard to parliament but also that in the 2003 elections, women candidates met and exceeded that minimum target.
These achievements are a result of specific mechanisms used to increase women’s political participation, among them a constitutional guarantee, quota system and innovative electoral structures and systems such as the proportional representation.
Back in Malawi, since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1994, the country has ratified and signed a number of international protocols that strengthen the legal and policy framework for women’s rights in the country.
They include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Sadc Declaration on Gender and Development; the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women; and the Beijing Platform for Action.
Lilongwe also enacted the Gender Equality Act No 13 of 2013 which, among others, provides for quotas in the tertiary education as well as public service appointments.
Despite all these legal provisions and protocols, the number of women in elective and appointed positions since 1994 has not been significant enough.
In the run up to the 2014 tripartite polls, government, through the Ministry of Gender, the NGO-GCN and UN Women, worked hand-in-hand to drive the 50:50 campaign seeking to promote women’s participation and representation in politics.
Nomination fees for women aspiring candidates were subsdised such that female aspiring MPs paid K75 000 while men paid K100 000; female aspiring councillors paid K15 000 while their male counterparts paid K20 000.
However, the number of women legislators slumped to 32 from 43 in 2009 and out of 457 wards, 401 men won and women candidates scooped the remaining 56 seats. Why did that happen?
First, the entrenched cultural beliefs of male dominance continues to relegate women to king makers, where they are expected to offer a helping hand to men to take up leading positions.
In fact, the 2015 Joint CSO Cedaw reports says some women did not receive support from their spouses during the 2014 polls as they expected them to do domestic chores, adding, such spouses would complain that participation in politics by their wives leads to a neglect of domestic chores.
Has there been enough to change this attitude among the citizenry?
It is arguable that to change the system, there is need to fuse gender issues into the education system, right from kindergarten. Learning that all people are equal from that age will likely improve the attitude towards women.
Again, the electorate wants candidates who are able to express themselves, and with most women in rural areas illiterate, it is difficult for them to stand on the podium and sell themselves to voters.
Is enough being done to change that illiteracy? Each year, hundreds of girls drop out of school to get married, surely, that only helps men to continue dominating the political system.
By the way, running a political campaign is expensive, it requires so much money. Are these women empowered economically to fund campaigns?
Are there deliberate policies that economically empower women in the country? Obviously, the social cash transfer schemes from which some women benefit cannot not fund a campaign.
Additionally, political parties themselves have done little to empower women. The only space given to women in all parties is the creation of the directorate of women, with few other women occupying senior positions outside this directorate.
Any deliberate policy to empower women right from area committees?
How do women rise in such positions? On the podium they exist, but not on paper and in the ideal world. Are those women elected delivering to entice voters to elect more women?
All that is seen is women being used as dancing queens for men who are regarded as superior.
So many protocols have been ratified, and the law is in place, but has it helped? Section 11 of the Gender Equality Act (2013) is crystal clear that where 60-40 ratio between men and women has not been complied, there should be compliance of the same. And, by the way, where is the 50:50 campaign? It seems to have lost ground, no one is talking about it anymore, everybody seems to be waiting for the 2019 polls. Sad.
Just like in Rwanda, Malawi needs deliberate electoral policies. Abandon the first-past-the-post system and adopt the proportional representation whereby each party puts up a list or slate of candidates equal to the number of seats in the district. On the ballot, voters indicate their preference for a particular party and the parties then receive seats in proportion to their share of the vote.
Malawi is lucky, President Peter Mutharika is the UN global champion for the He-for-She campaign. The campaign calls upon men and boys to stand up against the persisting inequalities faced by girls and women globally.
Charity begins at home, it is said, meaning Mutharika must ensure that his appointments are in tandem with the Gender Equality Act (2013) to boost the He-for-She campaign and that proper strategies, in collaboration with stakeholders, are put in place and executed.
Rwanda is a role model, and any meaningful Malawian must be thinking about that. By the way, women in Rwanda occupy over 50 percent of the population, just like in Malawi.
Kigali is agreed: Leaders translate their podium statements into action. It is less talking, more action, not more talk, less action as is the case in Malawi.
There is one thing for sure: Malawi will not improve on women representation if social, cultural and economic barriers that inhibit their ability to make significant changes in politics are not addressed.
Have Malawi women been relegated to kingmakers?
For 36-year-old Regina Sululu, the December 22 2015 Parliamentary and Local Government by-elections were her first, and probably the last in her lifetime, to participate as a candidate.
“I don’t want to suffer any more humiliation. I suffered a lot during these by-elections and the best way to keep my dignity is to stay away from active politics,” she fumes.
Sululu, who contested on a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket in Ngala Ward in Lilongwe, recalls how some men in her area verbally abused and campaigned against her candidacy.
“Most men never came to my campaign meetings and they told their spouses not to patronise my meetings and not to vote for me because I am a woman. They said I had no wisdom to be a leader because I am a woman,” she recounts.
Most of these men, she says, told her to concentrate on household chores such as caring for her children, the sick, working in the farm and cooking, rather than joining politics, which she said is belied to be a men’s game.
“Imagine, meeting men, saying I am wasting my time to compete in politics. They used all sorts of adjectives to portray not only me, but all other women, as puppets and that we have no wisdom to be leaders.
“There was a time I thought of giving up, but I took solace in that my party [DPP] was supportive and I contested. But I tell you, that was my first and last election to contest. I was psychologically affected my family also suffered this humiliation and I don’t want any more of that,” she declares.
Sululu says the humiliation reflected in the results, as most of the people she thought would vote for her never showed up to vote. She claims they were put off by what others were talking about female candidates.
Ngala Ward, in Lilongwe Msozi North Constituency had a total of 15 330 registered voters, but only 2 128 voters turned out for polling—representing a 13.88 percent voter turnout. Master Rodgers Chazama of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) got 1 381votes while Sululu came second with 717 votes.
Sululu’s story is not different from that of Fatima Chilawi, 29, who contested as an independent candidate during the August 25 2015 by-elections in Msikisi Ward in Mangochi.
Chilawi is a member of the United Democratic Front (UDF), but contested as an independent candidate because ‘UDF leaders endorsed a male candidate, without primary elections’.
“After this decision, I chose to stand as an independent candidate and came out on number three. You can see that the party oppressed me because instead of calling for primaries, they decided that a man should represent us,” she says.
According to Chilawi, parties like using women as dancing queens, but have no regard to uplifting their status in politics.
“Most women are poor and illiterate, so they want to earn a little money to buy basic necessities for their families. Men capitalise on this and use them as dancing queens. Sometimes women travel long,” says Chilawi.
She says she spent K318 000 on printing T-shirts and posters as well as travelling to venues for campaigning. Much of this money came from her shop where she sells groceries and clothes.
“I had no more money for handouts, and some women never patronised my rallies. They opted to go where candidates were dishing out cash.
“My business almost collapsed because of the campaign. Later, my brother in South Africa came in to sponsor me. I am still counting my losses, but am sure I will get back to my feet,” she says.
To Chilawi, there is little women can do unless they are economically and socially empowered to make informed decisions on elections.
Unlike Sululu, who is almost certain that she will not contest again in the 2019 polls, Chilawi has already set her eyes on the 2019 polls.
“All I want is support from the party [UDF] and change of mindset among the electorate regarding women leadership. I know women can do it, and I will win in 2019,” says Chilawi. n
Women numbers plummeting in politics
Since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1994, Malawi has ratified and signed a number of international protocols that strengthen the legal and policy framework for women’s rights in the country.
They include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) the Sadc Declaration on Gender and Development; the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women and the Beijing Platform for Action.
In addition, Lilongwe also enacted the Gender Equality Act No 13 of 2013 which, among others, provides for quotas in tertiary education as well as in public service appointments.
Despite all these legal provisions and protocols, the numbers of women in elective and appointed positions have been unpredictable, most importantly uninspiring since 1994.
Since that year, the highest point for women’s representation in Parliament was between 2009 and 2014, when they had a 22 percent share of the seats.
From 10 parliamentarians in 1994, the number moved to 18 after the 1999 polls, then to 27 in 2004 and 43 in 2009. However, the number tragically slumped to 16.6 percent in the May 2014 general elections as only 32 female candidates made it to Parliament.
The problem runs across all four major parties. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had 31 female parliamentarians in 2009, but the number dropped to eight in 2014; Malawi Congress Party (MCP) doubled its number from three in 2009 to six in 2014, but that figure is uninspiring given that the party has 50 parliamentarians.
The same can be said of the movement from one to two seats for women by the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the People’s Party, which did not exist in the 2009 elections has five female legislators.
In fact, out of 1 292 candidates vying for 193 parliamentary seats in 2014, only 257 were women and 44 constituencies had no female contestant, according to the 2015 Joint CSO-Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women) Shadow Report for Malawi.
Again, Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) figures show that while the May 2014 elections produced 401 male councillors, it produced only 56 female councillors, representing 14 percent. This was an improvement from the 2000 local polls when a mere 9 percent of women were elected.
The trend on Cabinet positions is the same. As at June 1999, the Bakili Muluzi Cabinet, which had 30 members, only had two female ministers and two deputies; in June 2009, the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s 41-member Cabinet had four female full ministers, with five deputies.
In 2011, Mutharika had appointed four female ministers and three deputies, but the number moved to eight female ministers and one deputy in 2012, when Joyce Banda took over the reins at Capital Hill. Between 2011 and 2014, Malawi had a 32-member Cabinet.
However, after the 2014 polls, the number of women Ministers reduced from 28.1 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2014 as President Peter Mutharika appointed just three female ministers in his 20-member Cabinet. There are no female deputy ministers at the moment.
According to the 2015 Joint CSO Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) Shadow Report, the number of female Principal Secretaries is currently at 17, compared with 29 for men, and the only improvement registered is in the Malawi Police Service (MPS) as the last contingent to Darfur, women.
“Human Rights Commission is at 14 percent while at Competition and Fair Trading Commission it is 20 percent and National Aids Commission at 0 percent,” adds the 2015 Joint CSO Cedaw report.
On August 17 2015, the President appointed just one woman, Bertha Sefu, out of the seven appointees into the sixth cohort of commissioners of the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC).
Immediately after the appointment, NGO Gender Coordinating Network (NGO-GCN) and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), wrote Mutharika requesting him to withhold swearing in of the new commissioners and conduct an investigation into how the appointments were done.
They argued that the President flouted Section 11(1) of the Gender Equality Act (2013), which obliges public service appointments to be on a 60-40 percent basis between men and women.
But Mutharika, who is also the UN global champion for the He-for-She campaign [it calls upon men and boys to stand up against the persisting inequalities faced by girls and women globally], ignored the request.
The commissioners later took oath of office, and Sefu remains the only female commissioner in the human rights watchdog institution.n
Exploitation being camouflaged as women empowerment
The failed candidate in the August 22 by-elections in Msikisi Ward in Mangochi, Fatima Chilawi, 29, has no kind words to political parties on how they use women:
“Political parties take us as people whose responsibility is just to dance for men. There is nothing like empowering us. Look, when a party leader is going abroad, women are ferried in lorries from places such as Mangochi to the airport in Blantyre just to dance for the leader.
“Do you call that empowerment or exploitation? Even during rallies, sometimes women travel long distances, carrying children on their back, just to be given K100 after dancing the whole day. Do you think that is empowering us?” queries Chilawi.
In fact, during the campaign to 2014 Tripartite Elections, all parties developed manifestos that pledged gender balance, so that women are fully represented in the National Assembly and Cabinet, among others.
However, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) spokesperson Jessie Kabwila contends that despite such provisions, most parties do not have affirmative strategies to promote women.
“Most political parties look at women as king makers, and not as rulers themselves. We are seeing women being relegated to dancers, they have no say! We also have cultural problems as some people think women exist just to be submissive to men,” she argues.
Mzati Mbeko, national coordinator for Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wlsa), corroborates, adding that parties hardly follow policies on women empowerment outlined in their blueprints.
“These gender policies are just window dressers. Parties want to be seen by the world that they are committed to empowering women, but there is nothing on the ground to show that commitment,” argues Mbeko.
The United Nations (UN) observes that political parties are among the most important institutions affecting women’s political participation across the globe as they mostly determine which candidates are nominated and elected.
In the run up to the 2014 tripartite polls, the Malawi Government, through the Ministry of Gender, the NGO-GCN and UN Women, worked hand-in-hand to drive the 50:50 campaign seeking to promote women’s participation and representation in politics.
Nomination fees for women aspiring candidates were subsdised such that female aspiring MPs paid K75 000 while men paid K100 000; female aspiring councillors paid K15 000 while their male counterparts paid K20 000. In addition, female candidates were supported with cash contributions to their campaigns.
But the number of women legislators slumped to 32 from 43 in 2009 and out of 457 wards, 401 men won as women councillors scooped the remaining 56 seats.
The increase in the number of women parliamentarians from 27 in 2004 to 43 in 2009 is largely attributed to the strong moral and financial support that was given by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to its female candidates.
What went wrong then for the DPP, which had 31 female MPs in 2009, to have just eight after the 2014 elections?
Patricia Kaliati, the director of women affairs in the DPP and Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, insists that the party did enough to help women candidates.
She says women parliamentarians must deliver in their constituencies when elected if they are to retain their seats.
Kaliati, who in 2015 won several international accolades for championing gender issues, also stresses the need to develop women in many faculties so that they ably compete in politics.
But Kabwila, whose party [MCP] doubled the number of women parliamentarians from three in 2009 to six in 2014, says the principle of male supremacy must stop as negative gender stereotypes, images and roles affect participation of women in politics.
Besides cultural stereotypes, the Salima South parliamentarian, thinks high illiteracy levels and lack of financial muscle among women also force women to shy away from politics.
“The majority of women are poor, living in the rural areas and illiterate. Mind you, politics is a very expensive game, and without money, there is no chance for women to tussle against men during elections,” she cautions.
NGO-GCN chairperson Emma Kaliya agrees with Kabwila. She says some people in the country are stuck in old traditions which portrayed women as home keepers, and not leaders.
Kaliya concedes that unless people change their perception of women based on culture, “it will take us a long time before we can start celebrating about increased numbers of women in elective positions”.
It is worth stating that Joyce Banda made history by becoming Malawi’s first female president, the first in the Sadc region and was the second in Africa. She replaced Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in office. Banda was Bingu’s runningmate during the 2009 polls.
The BBC reported in 2012, during Banda’s ascendancy to the presidency, that she had endured a tough ride with the DPP under Mutharika.
Banda was in December 2010 expelled from DPP for allegedly forming parallel structures, alongside Khumbo Kachali, but some quarters argued that she was fired because she disputed Mutharika’s ambitions of putting his brother, Peter as his replacement in the 2014 polls.
After Banda’s expulsion, the BBC quoted Callista Mutharika as saying: “She [Banda] will never be president, how can a mandasi [fritter] seller be president?”
The then Southern Region governor for DPP, Noel Masangwi, also told the local media that Malawi was not ready for a female president.
“All I am saying is that Malawi is not ready for a woman president. The vice-president [Banda] might have had such ambitions, but I am sorry to say this,” said Masangwi.
The remarks cement the ridicule that Banda and other female candidates faced during the run up to the 2014 polls, as stated by Kaliya and the Cedaw report.
According to the Joint CSO Cedaw report, during the 2014 polls, some women candidates did not receive support from their spouses who expect them to do domestic chores.
It says such spouses would complain that participation in politics by their wives leads to a neglect of domestic chores.
These sentiments corroborate findings of the 2014 Afrobarometer survey released in February 2015. The survey shows that the proportion of Malawians who say women should have the same chance as men of being elected to office has declined since 2012 from 78 percent to 61 percent.
The survey adds that Malawian women are less likely to be involved in political discussions and show less interest in public affairs than their male counterparts.
“While more than half (56 percent) of men say they attended a political rally in the previous year, only 44 percent of women did so. Women were also 8-12 percentage points less likely than men to attend a campaign meeting, persuade others to vote a certain way, or work for a political candidate,” it reads.
No wonder, Chilawi argues that most parties use women to gunner votes during elections when, in fact, they have no regard for women empowerment. n
When the appointing authority is more powerful than the law
For ages, Malawi has been touted as developing the best blueprint for development, to the effect that some countries have copied from her.
However, such policies, and the many treaties and protocols that the country has ratified to, have not benefited the country much.
National coordinator for Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wlsa) Mzati Mbeko argues that Malawi is good at adopting and developing policies, but implementing agencies or authorities disrespect such provisions.
“The problem is that we do not have a culture of respecting laws. We have a Constitution without constitutionalism because we don’t respect the spirit if the law. We need those in authority to respect the law. Parties must do the same and they we will see some change,” he says.
For instance, on August 17 2015, President Peter Mutharika appointed just one woman, Bertha Sefu, out of the seven people appointed into the sixth cohort of commissioners of the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC).
The men appointed are Baldwin Chiyamwaka, Justin Dzonzi, Benedicto Kondowe, Dalitso Kubalasa, Steven Nkoka, and Reverend Patrick Semphere.
NGO Gender Coordinating Network (NGO-GCN) and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) had reservations with the appointments.
“We propose the withdrawal of the nominations and that a new process starts all over again to include two more women from the existing list. Section 11 of the Gender Equality Act is crystal clear that where 60-40 ratio between men and women has not been complied with, there should be compliance of the same.
“Otherwise why did we have the Gender Equality Act that cannot be respected?” queried the activists on August 17 2015.
But Mutharika, who is also the UN global champion for the He-for-She campaign, ignored the request.
Gerald Viola, Mutharika’s spokesperson is defensive. He insists the President is committed to ensuring gender equality, but that such commitment is frustrated by some quarters.
“When you look at the MHRC issue, the names were submitted to the President showed that only one woman qualified. It was not the President who proposed the names.
“You also know the issue regarding the Clerk of Parliament. The President wanted a woman to be there, but look at what happened. Some people decided to go to court and that was frustrating the President’s wish to have more women in higher positions,” argues Viola.
According to Viola, Mutharika would be happy to see Parliament discussing the issue of quotas so that some seats are reserved for women in elective offices.
Partly, NGO-GCN chairperson Emma Kaliya agrees with Viola. She blames committees responsible for analysing names for appointment by the President.
“They collect names on their own and submit to the President at their convenience. These people know well the gender equality provisions, but deliberately choose to ignore that, and when the Presidency announces the names, everybody blames the President,” she says.
Kaliya further groans that many institutions, especially boards choose more men than women into their folds, wondering why they choose to ignore gender parity provisions.
“It is disheartening sometimes, because it seems as if boards have no respect for women and their capabilities.
“If they continue disrespecting women, in the near future we will be left with no option but to go to courts that everybody must respect the law,” warns Kaliya.
Despite such actions by the State, the protocols Lilongwe ratified, and legal provisions remain unchanged.
The Beijing Platform for Action, for instance, still calls on governments to take practical measures to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making as well as to increase women’s capacity to participate in decision-making.n
‘Women empowerment campaign dead’
If you were around during the 2014 tripartite elections, you may have noticed that a day hardly passed without gender activists, civil society organisations (CSOs) and the donor community urging the citizenry to elect more women.
Dubbed the 50:50 Campaign, government, through the Ministry of Gender, the NGO-GCN and UN Women, worked hand in hand to promote women’s participation and representation in politics.
After all that energy, the campaign failed to bear fruits, only 32 female candidates made it to parliament representing 16.6 percent, down from 43 women parliamentarians in 2009.
Just to put things in perspective, with 64 percent of seats held by women, Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world; Senegal, Seychelles and South Africa have more than 40 percent each, while Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda are not far off, as women occupy over 35 percent of all parliamentary seats. Malawi shamelessly stands at 16.6 percent.
With the poor results during the 2014 elections, one would have thought that stakeholders in the 50:50 campaign would continue fighting for the gender parity cause, rather than waiting for the 2019 polls.
Arguably, the 50:50 campaign seems to have lost ground, no one is talking about it now, everybody seems to be waiting for 2019 when Malawi will go to the polls again.
Mzati Mbeko, national coordinator for Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wlsa), concedes that CSOs have abandoned their cause.
To Mbeko, the
major problem women empowerment in politics is taken as an event, and not as a process.
“To be honest, there is nothing happening. We are waiting for 2018 to start intensifying campaign on women empowerment because the issue is not taken as a process, but as an event,” he observes.
Why abandoning then? Mbeko says CSOs have no money to sustain the campaign, calling on donors to intervene.
“CSOs swing to where donor money is at a particular moment that’s why you find that some have shifted focus to issues on homosexuality and climate change. It’s what I call ‘slogan mongering’, like going where money is.”
“Currently, some men are flat out in constituencies building bridges and the like. Women have no money to do that and do you think when they start campaigning in 2018 they can defeat men who have campaigned for over four years?” he wonders.
‘Slogan mongering’, as coined by Mbeko, presents a serious challenge which calls for concerted efforts among CSOs and the donor community.
Swinging to where money is available, maybe good, but not ideal for Malawi, a country seriously in need of efforts to improve women representation in public life.
“CSOs must remain focused on identifying women willing to run for office, provide training and other types of support for women candidates; lobby to ensure issues of special concern to women are addressed in party platforms, lobby for legislative changes to advance women’s empowerment; and develop cross-party networks of women,” says Mbeko.
Boniface Dulani, a political analyst says continued silence on the 50:50 campaign is detrimental in all respects.
“It is unfortunate that we don’t hear about the 50:50 campaign anymore. CSOs will tell you that they have no money to sustain the campaign, but they must know that taking women empowerment as an event will not help matters because it involves changing attitude, and you cannot change an attitude during election time only,” he notes.
Emma Kaliya, the NGO-GCN chairperson, urges all CSOs in the gender parity quest not to tire until the ultimate prize is won.
She also believes the media has power to help to change people’s mindset on women empowerment.
“Let the media provide gender-sensitive coverage of elections, avoiding negative stereotypes and presenting positive images of women as leaders. They must help us in the civil society to undertake voter and civic education programmes aimed specifically at women,” she urges Prior to the 2014 elections, the UN Women Malawi focused on enhancing women’s candidacy as councillors and parliamentarians in partnership with CSOs, Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) and political parties.
According to information on the UN Women, the Malawi office is now focused on enhancing capacities of parliamentarians and particularly councillors to advance gender equality sensitive legislation and policies.
“UN Women Malawi is also working to implement the Gender Equality Act’s quota of between 40 percent and 60 percent female representation in the public service,” reads part of the information on the UN Women website.
With organisations such as the UN Women still in the game, CSOs in the country will have themselves to blame should the number of women continue plummeting in the 2019 polls.
CSOs must thus wake up from their deep slumber and join organisations such as UN Women to continue with the campaign, before it is too late. n
Relegating women with cultural beliefs, illiteracy
When women like 36 year old Regina Sululu who participated in the December 22 2015 Parliamentary and Local Government by-elections in Ngala Ward in Lilongwe vow not to contest again in any future polls because she was harassed for being a woman, everybody must get worried.
Sululu, who contested on a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket in Ngala Ward in Lilongwe, says most men never patronised her campaign meetings and they told their spouses not to vote for her because she is woman.
Social anthropologist Dr Charles Chilimampunga sympathises with Sululu, blaming the colonial government for the situation.
“In the traditional Malawi society before the colonisation, women used to occupy influential positions like being chiefs. They were respected and it was a well balanced society.
“But when Europeans came to colonise Malawi, that changed. Men we being given positions that depicted them as being more superior and powerful than women, like being soldiers. That for me changed the gender landscape, a women were relegated to lesser influential positions,” he says.
How do we solve the problem? Chilimampunga first stresses that Malawi remains a highly patriarchal society, with gradual changes in the gender setup.
States Chilimampunga: “First we need to start exposing women that have done extremely well in influential positions so that both men and women appreciate women leadership. We need to provide concrete examples.
“Secondly, gender issues must go down to children in schools and homes. Our boys and girls, as young as six years must start understanding that they are equal and can do everything. The nurturing will help to improve understanding of gender by the generations to come.”
Political analyst Bonface Dulani concurs with Chilimapnunga. He feels the 50:50 campaign requires changing attitudes of people who believe in male supremacy and this calls for more time and more resources needed for the campaign.
“This is also an issue of attitude because a substantial number of Malawians have negative attitude towards women in elective office. In fact if you look at the Afrobarometer survey released last year, it show that 40 percent of Malawians said women should not stand for political office.”
“So we need the campaign now, because it will be too late if it starts just a few months before the 2019 elections because if you have to change people’s attitude, you need a longer period, you can’t change attitude in space of a month or a year,” says Dulani.
The survey Dulani is referring to also shows that the proportion of Malawians who say women should have the same chance as men of being elected to office has declined since 2012 from 78 percent to 61 percent.
“While almost eight in 10 men say they discuss politics “occasionally” or “frequently,” only six in 10 women do so. Interest in public affairs shows the same gap, 77 percent for men vs. 64 percent for women. These gender gaps have persisted or increased since 2002,” reads the report.
Again, the survey reveals that Malawian women are less likely to be involved in political discussions and show less interest in public affairs than their male counterparts.
“While more than half (56%) of men say they attended a political rally in the previous year, only 44% of women did so. Women were also 8-12 percentage points less likely than men to attend a campaign meeting, persuade others to vote a certain way, or work for a political candidate,” it reads.
In fact, the 2015 Joint CSO CEDAW reports says some women did not receive support from their spouses who expect them to do domestic chores, adding, such spouses would complain that participation in politics by their wives leads to a neglect of domestic chores.
“Some female candidates were also called prostitutes by people in the communities as they were viewed negatively for taking on the male dominated area of standing as candidates. It is also noted that women do not support fellow women during elections,” it reads.
Mzati Mbeko of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) has called for a national conference, that would lead to a formidable campaign dubbed A Woman Can.
“Stakeholders will have to reach every corner of the country promoting women under this campaign. I believe that after some time, people will have changed their attitude on women empowerment.
“I am afraid that the current scenario where no one seems to be talking about women empowerment and are waiting for elections may not have any impact, and we will continue taking about these issues,” warns Mbeko.
The CSOs’ silence due to lack of funds on the campaign is exacerbated by government’s reluctance to allocate enough resources towards gender related programmes. There is not much that government offers.
A 2014 Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare (MoGCDSW) Report on the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action indicates inadequate funding to gender programmes and activities as a block to achieving gender equality and women empowerment.
“Funding to gender programmes and activities, including towards the implementation of gender related laws, is fragmented and inadequate. Almost all the programmes on gender are supported by development partners.
In fact, the allocation for the Ministry of Gender in the 2015/2016 National Budget is the lowest of all Ministries at less than 0.36 percent of the total package, no wonder there is too much reliance on development partners on gender related programmes.
Government further admits in the report that gender budgeting guidelines that were developed by the Ministry of Gender in 2005 have not translated into targeted funding for gender programmes.
Jessie Kabwila, Parliamentary chairperson for Women Caucus, says most of these problems emanate from the high illiteracy levels among women. The 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) puts the literacy rates for males and females at 81.8 percent and 77.4 percent, respectively.
According to Kabwila, the electorate want candidates who are able to express themselves, and with most women in rural areas illiterate, it will be difficult to deal with cultural beliefs bordering on male supremacy.
“We need to improve literacy levels among women, girls have to remain in school because people will not vote for illiterate candidates just because they are women. How will they express themselves on issues in parliament and at other forums? notes Kabwila.
“Our curricula have go include issues do to with gender and women empowerment so that when children grow, they should understand that women are not just king makers, but that they can also lead.”
The African Union (AU) Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa study—completed in October 2015 shows that nearly 65 percent of women in Malawi with no formal education are child brides, compared to five percent of women who attended secondary school or higher education.
Worse still, the study says daughters of uneducated mothers are especially likely to drop out of school, marry young and repeat the cycle of poverty.
This, as explained by Kabwila, means more women will remain illiterate, resulting into continued male dominance on elective and appointed positions.
The Joint CSO-CEDAW Shadow report corroborates. It says women’s generally low level of education affect them negatively as voters would prefer a candidate who can converse in English and has good academic qualification.
“Focus Group Discussions with women from the urban and rural areas [during 2014 elections] gathered that low levels of education affected women negatively as it was generally perceived that they could not perform better that the educated male candidates.”
While government is providing adult literacy lessons, it has been faulted for only focusing on acquisition of basic reading, writing and numerical skills.
“Educationists suggest that Government should start providing what is termed as ‘functional literacy’ whereby learners also acquire information that is usable in their efforts to improve their living standards,” states the CEDAW report.
Rwanda is perhaps best known for the 1994 genocide that killed nearly a tenth of its population. But today, Rwanda shines with 64 percent of women in her parliament. The peaceful Malawi, whose president Peter Mutharika is the UN global champion for the He for She campaign, shamelessly stands at 16.6 percent.
Remember, the He for She campaign calls upon men and boys to stand up against the persisting inequalities faced by girls and women globally.
Charity begins at home, it is said, meaning Mutharika must ensure that his appointments are in tandem with the Gender Equality Act (2013) to boost the He for She Campaign and that proper strategies, in collaboration with stakeholders, are put in place and executed.
Regina Sululu could just be one, among many other women who have given up. Malawi that will not improve on women representation if social, cultural and economic barriers that inhibit their ability to make significant changes in politics are not addressed.
‘Electoral laws unfriendly to women, reforms needed’
Various political, legal and gender experts, including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have stressed the need to review the country’s electoral system, saying, the current ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system favours male candidates.
They argue that the FPTP system, in which an election is won by the candidate receiving more votes than any others, excludes women since they are less likely to be elected as candidates by male-dominated party.
For instance, political analyst Bonface Dulani believes the proportional representation system would be ideal for Malawi if more women are to be elected during elections.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “under this system, each party puts up a list or slate of candidates equal to the number of seats in the district. Independent candidates may also run, and they are listed separately on the ballot as if they were their own party. On the ballot, voters indicate their preference for a particular party and the parties then receive seats in proportion to their share of the vote.”
And Dulani says this is the system Maalwi requires if women numbers are to improve in elective positions.
“If we shift to proportional representation, political parties will be required to list more women. It is this system that has worked for countries like Rwanda and South Africa, and am confident that it can work in Malawi as well,” he says.
The dramatic gains for women in Rwanda are a result of specific mechanisms by Kigali to increase women’s political participation, among them a constitutional guarantee, quota system, and innovative electoral structures.
Rwanda’s 2003 constitution provides for 30 percent automatic representation of women in decision making organs. However, this quota has been surpassed, as women now occupy 64 percent of the seats in parliament .
The 2015 Joint CSO-CEDAW report blames women’s dismal performance on lack of amendments to the Electoral Laws to effect the Gender-Neutral Quota of 40/60. It urges government to act with speed.
“Revise electoral laws to have specific quotas for women i.e. automatic reservation for women in specific constituencies and include the rotational gender system. Also, provide incentives to political parties with more female parliamentarians such as the allocation of more resources,” reads the report.
The report also urges government to ban the issuance of hand-outs and money to voters during campaigns, and encourage issue based campaigns.
Issue based campaign was talk of the town during campaign period prior to the 2014 tripartite elections, but it never paid dividends.
While opposition parties continued with the trend of dishing out money during rallies, then ruling Peoples’ Party (PP), through its leader Joyce Banda was busy with dishing out cows under the One Family, A cow initiative. The initiative was widely taken as a campaign tool.
Currently, the National Taskforce on Electoral Reforms has recommended that 40 percent of seats in any council be reserved for women.
“As an incentive to encourage political parties to progressively promote women participation, the reserved seats in a given district council will then have to be granted to political parties in proportion to the number of parties’ elected representatives (combining district level parliamentary and local government elections results) in the respective district,” it recommends.
Once adopted, the task force says political parties will have to be encouraged to introduce, democratic, transparent and competitive mechanisms to identify eligible women that may be considered for these reserved seats, just as Dulani proposes.
Co-Chairperson of the Taskforce, Steve Duwa is satisfied with the level of debate on the recommendations, as witnessed in various consultative meetings.
UDF spokesperson Ken Ndanga, MCP’s Jessie Kabwila and DPP’s Patricia Kaliati support the recommendation. They say it will ensure that more women get into elective positions.
“We are in support of the idea of changing the system to proportional representation so that more women make it to parliament. As a democratic party, we believe that is the way to go,” supports Ndanga.
Political parties urged to do more
Legal and political experts have advised political parties to go beyond developing policies aimed at promoting women, saying they must ensure that such blueprints are implemented so that women rise through their ranks and are encouraged to compete during national elections.
They say political parties are among the most important institutions affecting women’s political participation, as such women’s rise in politics largely depends on these institutions.
During the campaign to 2014 tripartite elections, all parties developed manifestos that pledged a proper gender balance so that women are fully represented in the National Assembly and Cabinet, among others.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) spokesperson Jessie Kabwila says despite such provisions, most parties do not have affirmative strategies to promote women.
In fact, Clara Makugwa, the Director of Women in Peoples’ Party (PP) whose party had a female candidate in the 2014 elections, says much as the party has been promoting women, its constitution is not that clear on this subject.
Admits Makungwa: “You will notice that we have been talking about women empowerment, but that is not spelt clearly in our constitution.
“At the moment, we are conducting meetings seeking input so that when we go to the major conference, probably next year, we should be able to come up with strategies that will lead to affirmative action on how to empower women.”
While supporting reforms on electoral laws so that more women are elected, Makungwa believes political parties must be the first to create that conducive environment for women.
“Parliament may pass those laws, but they will mean nothing if parties have not made the environment conducive for women. It must start with parties, otherwise, we may just have laws that will not help,” she notes.
Mzati Mbeko of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) adds that parties hardly follow their policies on women empowerment.
“These gender policies are just window dressers. Parties want to be seen by the world that they are committed to empowering women, but there is nothing on the ground to show that commitment,” he argues.
Advises Mbeko: “They must clearly identify the advancement of women and issues of special concern to women as priorities in their platforms and make certain that women are fully represented in party leadership and during elections.”
Mbeko also cautions women who were elected during the 2014 polls to be active in their areas so that electorate develop confidence in women leaders.
Director of Women Affairs in the DPP and Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati agrees with Mbeko.
“When you have been elected, people from other constituencies must envy your good work. They must say, look at Mulanje West, Kaliati is doing fine there, in doing so, they will have the zeal to elect female parliamentarians and retain them,” she says.
According to Kaliati, DPP is currently parading women MPs throughout the country to encourage the electorate to be voting for female candidates and that more women should join frontline politics.
Ken Ndanga, publicist for United Democratic Front (UDF) says his party offers women a chance to occupy important positions right from the grassroots.
“When you go in area committees, we have women as leaders, that goes up to district level and the national governing council. In fact, we have a directorate of women within the UDF just to make sure that we have more women in the party hierarchy,” states Ndanga.
But Fatima Chilawi, 29, who contested as an independent candidate during the August 25 2015 by-elections in Msikisi Ward in Mangochi calls on parties to adopt deliberate, but democratic systems that empower women.
Chilawi is a member of the UDF but contested as an independent candidate because ‘UDF leaders endorsed a male candidate without primary elections’.
“Women have to rise from area committees, to district, regional then to national levels. In all these committees, there must be deliberate policies or quotas for women. Parties must also retain sitting MPs and councillors,” says Chilawi.
Chilawi also urges parties to stop taking women as dancing queens, saying continued use of women as dancers during rallies erodes their confidence, as it makes them believe that their role in politics is to entertain men.
The Joint CSO-CEDAW report has also added its voice on the matter. It urges parties to raise awareness in area committees as well as the general public about the leadership roles of a woman during and after an election.
“Support current sitting female MPs to develop their areas to assist them win votes for re-election as well as feedback sessions for female MPs,” it says.
Bonface Dulani, a political analyst thinks the few number of women that contested during the 2014 elections is either as a result of parties not creating a conducive environment for women to or that women themselves are not interested.
“Political parties must come up with clear policies that will enable women to stand as candidates. If all parties agree on this, and implement their policies, then we will have a better story,” he urges.