The Mzimba by-elections only had one woman contestant despite the 50/50 campaign for female representation in decision-making positions which has been going on for years. Experts blamed this on silence from civil society and other key stakeholders in the campaign. MWERETI KANJO talks to NGO Gender Coordinating Network chairperson Emma Kaliya on the current stand of the 50/50 campaign.
Q: Is the 50/50 campaign still there?
A: In terms of the activities, I would say we do not have anything active except for those around public and private sector but in terms of women in politics it is not. We are still trying to work on the tripartite document with the Ministry of Gender, developing partners and non-governmental organisations. Because of that, we stalled a bit in trying to make sure that the document is comprehensive so that it can address issues of local government as well as the General Elections in 2014.
In terms of the whole talk of 50/50 [representation], it is a policy issue, so there is no way we can say it is no longer there. It is still being talked about but we really need activities that can translate to proper action.
Q: What is your reaction to the news that there was only one woman who took part in the Mzimba by-elections?
A: We felt quite bad. I think we have been discussing this. The whole reaction is that it was not fair that this woman had to be the only one. That was falling short of what we should have done for her. However, it was not intended. We did not have resources planned for by-elections. Obviously, because of that it was very difficult for us to start thinking of supporting the candidate or the general civic and voter education. You may have followed that NGOs did not do much in supporting the Electoral Commission in voter and civic education in the country.
Q: Still, as an NGO that advocates for the empowerment of women, isnâ€™t there something that you could have done even in the absence of donor funding?
A: With the participation of women, what we have been previously doing is the community mobilisation where you also bring a lot of people to meetings and talk. We do not have people in every constituency like in the constituency where she was where we would rely on them to say they will make a difference. We did not really have the capacity in terms of resources to get there. Previously, we have organised ourselves to travel and camp there to ensure that there is enough support for the candidate but we could not do it this time around because of resources and proximity. Even if we wanted to do it on pro bono basis, it was too far. If it were in Blantyre, members in Blantyre would have gone.
Q: Can it then be concluded that the 50/50 campaign is event based?
A: Yes, I can agree. Sometimes we talk a lot about 50/50 but at times the activities take a long time. All the activities are financed by development partners. It has been a practice here at home where elections only become active when we are getting closer to elections and that is when we get the resources to do all the work. In other countries, elections are taken as a process. So, when you are talking at the end that you have had fair and credible elections, you are putting together a whole process and it goes as a cycle. In other countries, it is an ongoing process but here it is only when the elections are approaching when we do other activities because we do not have resources. As long as we continue doing this, we should be expecting tougher times ahead of us. We will not make much of a difference and we will continue lamenting.
Q: The country is yet to achieve 50/50 representation despite massive campaign in the past. What are the challenges?
A: The challenges are huge. One that is commonly known is the male-dominated society where we still have to be controlled by those in power and these are mostly men. Secondly, resources are hard to come-by. In Malawi, elections have become very commercial. If you do not have money then you do not get a seat and it is mostly women who do not have money. Thirdly, it is the system that we are using, the electoral system is very challenging. We first have to pass the post which is competitive and it requires competing even financially. That is difficult to use to achieve parity. Some of us have been advocating that we go for a combination of first pass the post as well as the proportional representation like the one they have in South Africa.
In Mozambique they have both, in South Africa they have proportional representation. If we use that then it can work. Sadly, when we made our submission as NGO Gender Coordination Network during the constitutional review in 2007/8, it was rejected. Since then, nothing has happened and we are still just talking. Convincing those that can change these things has become very difficult for reasons we do not understand because it is just a matter of changing a system. In Lesotho they changed their system so fast. They used the Zebra System where you have a woman against a man then the party votes. They went as high as 49 percent, meaning that certain things can work.
Q: What should be done to overcome these challenges?
A: For us we are still saying one of the solutions is the one I have given of changing the electoral system. The other one is more of attitude change where we have to continue talking to people so that male dominance reduces a bit to allow women to participate. The other issue is grounding our work in human rights-based approach. It should be the women demanding their space. It should not be left to a few individuals. It should be up to the community to start demanding their place, we must move together. Women must say no to second citizenship.
Q: Given the above challenges, can Malawi achieve the fight for 50/50 representation?
A: Yes, why is it that Lesotho is 49 percent of local government? Why is it that Rwanda, although not in Sadc is around 55 percent? Why it is that South Africa and Mozambique are getting closer to those numbers? Why should we fail? It is a matter of changing the way we do things. I have always remained optimistic. If we made it to 43 women 2009, why should we fail to improve?
Q: What should the country expect during the 2014 elections?
A: We are hoping that we can bring about a comprehensive document that will be well structured and would support the thinking that is there. There is also a lot of need for community mobilisation that people vote for women. The thinking now is that development only comes with political will. We also need to work hard to retain those that are in Parliament so that we are just adding on the numbers. We also need to advocate more around resources but the key one is changing the system.