Pro-active gender campaign for Malawi elections

Date: January 1, 1970
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In May 2009, Malawians will be going to the polls for their fourth multi-party general elections. Despite Malawi’s signing of several domestic and international laws promoting women in decision-making positions, the country continues to lag far behind when it comes to women in parliament. Hoping to change this, gender activists are mounting a campaign to promote women aspirants leading up to 2009.

Currently only 14% of the total 193 member parliament are women. Malawi failed to achieve the 30% women representation goal declared by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).  With the bar now elevated to 50% representation in parliament by 2015, women aspirants and gender activists in Malawi are drafting plans and strategies to have more women in decision-making position during the next year’s elections.
The campaign aims to mobilise people on the need to vote more women members in parliament next year. Outlined in a communiqué produced at the end of a national conference on women in decision-making positions organised by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and Action Aid from 21- 22 February, the strategy includes building the capacity of women aspirants to level the political playing field and encouraging women to recognise their political rights.  
"Women still dance and sing for male politicians during campaigns," noted Dorothy Nyasulu chairperson of the (MHRC).  "Women in political and decision making positions is not by favour, but is their right, and must be treated as the so," observed Nyasulu.
Several factors and reasons contribute to the scarcity of women in decision-making positions in the country. Facilitating the conference, Dr. Egde Kanyongolo, law lecturer at the University of Malawi, said the Malawian media is part of the problem as they portray women as too weak to take up political positions.
Added to this, the social and economic culture in Malawi is very hostile towards women.  Some Malawian cultures discourage women from standing in front of men, and continue to believe that women’s roles remain in the kitchen and with the children.
Another challenge is that most women candidates do not have access to the same financial resources as their male counter parts. According to Christobell Chakwana, Director of Women Affairs in the Ministry of Women and Child Development, many women shun politics because of the fear of politically related violence, and the feeling that they may lose property and financial security should they not win. Women’s organisations in Malawi are committed to helping aspiring candidates and providing financial assistance to support their aspirations for parliament next year
Chakwana pointed out that encouraging networking and developing of positive strategies to promote each other as women are an important part of encouraging women’s participation.  Breaking into the political world where men often meet in drinking joints to seal business deals, is not easy for women given Malawian culture.
Added to such challenges, the Malawi Constitution does not provide for quotas or proportional representation in parliament.  The proportional representation (PR) system, in which the electorate votes for political parties, has been shown to be far more woman-friendly than the constituency system in which voters vote for a specific candidate. Resources and public profile play a critical role in the latter system.
Kanyongolo recommended the introduction of a quota system to be a positive move towards achieving goal of more women in decision-making positions. Research conducted by Gender Links, in three Southern African countries – Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa – concurs, showing that rapid and substantial changes to ensure gender equality only result from a combination of political party commitment, electoral systems and the often-debated quotas.
Yet, even these three countries with the highest representation of women in local government, all have legislated quotas of one kind or the other at local but not at national level.
The benefit for Malawi of more women in decision-making will be better government. Studies show that women bring unique perspectives and priorities to government, and the representation of the gender that make up 52% of the population just makes sense. Policies and legislation will not change to suit the needs of the women in the country if their voices are not included during the creation and discussion of those policies and laws.
If Malawi attains more women in decision-making positions, issues like HIV/AIDS, poverty and environmental issues, which have the highest impact on women, will likely be given greater priority in society.
Malawian women have shown that they are fully capable of occupying top posts. Top senior positions held by women include the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Information and Government Spokesperson, the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, 1st deputy Speaker of Parliament, and the Attorney General.
Though women are more than capable of holding these positions on their own, pro-active measures are jump-start to contradict the social and cultural pressures of society that discourage women. From global to regional to country level, the discussion points to quotas, capacity building and raising gender awareness to ensure that women have a place in politics. Only once women have their rightful place in parliament will our society see development that is more balanced.
Daniel Manyowa is a freelance journalist based in Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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