Political parties must commit to gender ahead of elections

Date: January 1, 1970
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The 2009 Malawi presidential and parliamentary elections are gripping in more than one aspect. Not only will these be one of the most hotly contested since the dawn of multi-party politics in 1993, but ironically the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) will contest for the first time after assuming power through the back door. The elections are also significant potential opportunity for increasing participation of women.

President wa Muthalika, who was elected president on the United Democratic Party (UDF) ticket in May 2004, unceremoniously resigned in February 2005 to form DPP. This paved the way for a mass exodus of MPs from the UDF and the largest opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) to the newly founded DPP. By 2006, DPP had over 70 MPs in parliament amassed through defection, with an exception of six who won through by-elections.
Power hungry Bakili Muluzi who served as president for two consecutive terms of five years in 1994 and 1999 was barred from contesting the elections, leaving his party, the UDF, in panic to find a replacement and negotiating for an electoral alliance with the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, without real bargaining power.
Compared to any other, this election has attracted the highest number of contestants, 1,097 in the 193 one-chamber parliament, as well as the highest number of women candidates. A total of 237 female candidates (22% of total) are contesting, many of them, 35%, standing as independent candidates after receiving raw deals from their political parties in the primary elections.
For a country with miserably low representation of women in parliament, only 13% and lying fourth from the bottom in the region), the 2009 elections present an opportunity for Malawi to increase gender equality. Malawi, failed to reach the 2005 Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of 30%, much less the elevated 50% by 2015 agreed in the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. So, this election is crucial.
The Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Gender Coordination Network is spearheading the national 50/50 campaign, supporting women candidates with K168 million (about US $1.18 million) funding from Norwegian Aid. The financial support attempts to surmount one of the greatest obstacles preventing women from political participation – lack of resources.
However, financial resources alone will not guarantee more women in office. Malawi’s “winner takes all” electoral system is not women-friendly, and political parties have no party quotas. NGOs, community based organisations, media and traditional leaders should make gender an election issue for 2009 – including organising a roundtable with political leaders to interrogate their commitment to equality.
NGOs cannot afford to be neutral. They should be more vocal on gender issues than ever before. Like freedom, more equal women representation will unlikely be delivered, if not demanded. This places responsibility on NGOs in the gender sector, such as the Society for Advancement of Women, Women’s Voice, Civil liberties Committee and other human rights NGOs, to vigorously campaign for women 50% women in parliament.
This is imperative not only because gender is a human rights issue, but male politicians often fail to make a difference in national development. Many consider women less corrupt, less pompous, more understanding,and  more accountable and transparent than their male counterparts.
For example, many current African leaders have failed to provide effective leadership. Many are not transparent or accountable, amassing millions of dollars while the country wallows in economic meltdown and abject poverty. They focus on personal aggrandizement and wealth at the expense of improving the lives and welfare of the people.
For example, former president of Malawi Bakili Muluzi is answering corruption charges involving 1.7 billion kwacha of donor money stashed in his personal account. Former president of Zambia Fredrick Chiluba also faces corruption charges involving billions of dollars. Late Sani Abacha of Nigeria is another paragon example who amassed billions of US dollars in foreign banks. This is minus other past corrupt leaders such as Mobutu Sese Seko (DRC), Marcus Nguema (Equatorial Guinea) and Jeane Emperor Bokasa (Central African Republic)
As political leaders milk their impoverished nations, MPs also have subtle ways of stealing. They construct lucrative packages for themselves at the expense of the people they purport to serve. For example, the male-dominated Malawi parliament has performed dismally over the past fifteen years (with the last five years being the worst). However, every year MPs raise their perks to senseless levels.
At one point, they even threatened to strike for better pay. In 2008, they moved a motion that each MP should get 500 liters of fuel per month. What they will do with all this fuel defies any reasoning. Where on earth does an individual use 500 liters of fuel a month? Most of the MPs live in cities and towns and rarely visit their constituents.
Women bring different perspectives to politics and having more in women parliament will make a difference in the lives of the people. There is ample evidence that women perform as well as, or sometimes even better than men. For example, the outgoing Malawi Second Deputy Speaker of parliament Ester Mcheka Chilenje Nkhoma controlled parliament proceedings better than speaker Louis Chimango, who was often indecisive. Furthermore, her constituents hailed her for using her constituency fee to improve their lives. She channeled all the money to development projects that made a difference in the lives of the people. 
Let women take more leadership roles. This is not to say that every woman makes a good leader, or that every man makes a bad one, but given the recent track record of male-dominated governance, it is time to give women the floor.
Lowani Mtonga is training coordinator for Gender, Media and Elections project at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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