Malawi Electoral Commission K100,000 fee blow to women candidates

Date: January 1, 1970
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In the year ahead, Malawi, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, and Angola will all go to the election polls. This past August, Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders committed themselves to 50% women in decision-making when they signed the SADC Gender Protocol. Given the year ahead, it then seems reasonable to expect that governments take necessary steps to ensure that the Protocol document translates into action on the ground.

Malawi has a long way to go when it comes to reaching 50%. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union database, at 13% Malawi ranks 89th in the world when it comes to women’s representation in Parliament. Thus, the decision of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to hike the fee for parliamentary candidates from K 5,000 (about US$ 35) to K100,000 (US$ 705) comes as a great surprise. The increase has serious repercussions for women vying for political office in the forthcoming 19 May elections.
The low representation of women in decision making positions stems from a plethora of obstacles. Apart from lack of access to education, unsupportive and undemocratic party structures, inimical electoral systems, violence and intimidation, patriarchal and other harmful traditions that relegate women to the kitchen, lack of resources pose a serious challenge for women to engage in a meaningful political campaign and get elected. 
The MEC decision is not only retrogressive, but redundant. What is the justification for such a huge increase? Certainly, it cannot be because the MEC needs to meet their operational costs because they are not a profit making organisation. They are adequately funded by government to conduct a free, fair, and credible election.
Elections, especially in Malawi, have become frighteningly commercialised, with candidates spending huge sums of money to drum up support. During the just ended primary elections, women politicians struggled with the huge sums of money now needed for campaigns.
Although cultural and traditional barriers are still strong, the huge numbers of women who have shown interest to contest in the elections offers hope, a unique opportunity to increase women representation in parliament. However, debilitating issues like hiking of fees can mar the attainment of that goal.  Not many women, especially those in the rural areas, can manage to pay such a colossal sum of money. Most of them will end up being discouraged and will throw in the towel before they even try.
One would expect that the chairperson of the MEC, being a woman, would be gender sensitive, understanding of the vulnerability of women, and a champion for the cause of ensuring the SADC 50-50 target becomes a reality.  The high fee that has been charged is not only an unnecessary financial burden on the women candidates, but begs the question whether the MEC, as an organisation, is gender sensitive and committed to seeing more women in parliament in 2009. 
The decision shows that the MEC is turning a blind eye to the needs of women and out of touch with Malawi’s obligations and commitments to gender equality under various gender policies and statutes at local, regional, and international levels. With the SADC Protocol, government has again committed itself to removing barriers and taking necessary steps that stand in the way of achieving gender equality in decision-making. The high election participation fee is one such obstacle.  
Since hiking the fee is an administrative issue, the MEC should hear calls from stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations campaigning for 50-50, human rights groups, political parties, and women candidates to reduce the fee or leave it at K 5,000, in the interest of democracy and gender.
This is not a form of affirmative action, but recognition that there is an unequal access to resources between men and women. Making the fee affordable to everyone is leveling the playing filed.
Time has now come for Malawi to give women more space in the parliamentary chamber en masse. Not only because they have a right to be in parliament, but they can be part of creating a better Malawi. Women in decision-making can better represent women’s issues and concerns, all part of a healthy society and democracy.
There is also a need to flag gender perspectives in electoral process decisions in other countries, as they prepare for their own polls. An active citizenry, civil society, and media who continue to put pressure on governments to consider how their decisions and actions are reflecting their gender commitments will go a long way to ensuring 50-50 in SADC.
Lowani Mtonga works for Gender Links as a Project Coordinator for Gender, Media and Elections  project. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh news on every day news.

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