Malawi: Women inching towards the 30 percent target

Blantyre - Slowly but surely, Malawi’s women are making their presence felt in the country’s traditionally male-dominated political arena.

Twenty-seven women managed to secure seats in the 193-member legislature during the recent general elections, held May 20. This may not appear a considerable figure, but it marks an important increase over the achievements of the 1999 poll – in which only 17 women were elected. In the 1994 vote, 10 women became legislators.

For Gertrude Mkandawire, a new opposition member of parliament (MP) for Mzimba Solola, a constituency in the far north of Malawi, winning the May 20 election was a triumph over customs that militate against women.

The single mother of two belongs to the Ngoni tribe, which she describes as having little tolerance for women who aspire to leadership positions. The men in her community required some persuading before they would allow her to contest the poll.

"It took a lot of courage because although I was accepted to contest, the men did not leave me to go it alone until I beat them at their own game in the actual poll," Mkandawire told IPS.

But, as undeniable as the accomplishments of Mkandawire and other female MPs are, they haven’t helped Malawi achieve the critical target of having 30 percent of parliamentary seats occupied by women, by 2005.

This target was set by the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) during a 1997 summit held in the Malawian commercial capital, Blantyre.

"As individuals, it feels good to have won, but deep inside our hearts we feel women who contested could have done better," said Angela Zachepa, 22, and the youngest woman MP in the country’s history.

To achieve the 30 per cent threshold, 58 women would have needed to be elected in the May poll. In the SADC region, only South Africa, Mauritius and Mozambique have reached the target.

"In general, we’d want to applaud the forward movement (concerning the election of women) while registering our concern that Malawi, the home of the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, has not honoured its part of the deal," Colleen Lowe Morna, Executive Director of Gender Links, told IPS from Johannesburg.

This South African-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) focuses on eliminating discrimination against women in media organisations, and in the media’s portrayal of women.

"As to why Malawi did not achieve the 30 percent target, this is due to the fact that the issue was given insufficient attention right to the very end. It required commitment at a political level, and then a lot of tangible strategies," says Morna.

These views are echoed by others. As IPS reported in February this year, a survey by the Pan-African Civic Educators Network, an NGO, showed that political parties in Malawi gave little support to women who contested party primaries to earn a place on the ballot sheet.

The Gender Electoral Support Network, a coalition of women’s organisations, also took aim at the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), accusing it of giving more campaign funds to men who were contesting the primaries. The feeling amongst many activists was that a women’s place was still perceived, largely, to be in the home.

The intransigence of political parties prompted many aspiring women MPs to run as independents. Ironically, several of those who won have since been lured back to the UDF, which found itself without a parliamentary majority after the May vote. Marjorie Ngaunje is one who wasn’t convinced to cross the floor.

"The battle is still on, because the post-election challenges are many and (will constitute) the real measure of our mettle as women leaders," Ngaunje told IPS. She has vowed to remain an independent voice in the legislature.

Like his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, President Bingu wa Mutharika has pledged to find ways of increasing women’s representation in decision-making bodies in Malawi.

"I will make sure that the number of women be increased in various positions. I am not satisfied with the 30 per cent because, still, women will be underrepresented," he told journalists Wednesday, Jun. 23, in the capital Lilongwe.

The press conference was called to dismiss reports that government intended to prevent women from wearing trousers and figure-hugging skirts. The reports had evoked memories of the ban on trousers and mini-skirts that was introduced by former dictator Hastings Banda.

Emma Kaliya, Chairwoman of the Gender Coordination Network, said she would wait to see whether Mutharika intended to match his words with actions – and address the numerous challenges facing Malawian women.

"Women, despite making up 52 per cent of the total population, remain the poorest. This is making it difficult for them to rise to the challenges facing the country," she told IPS.

Muluzi had pledged to lobby for a constitutional amendment that would allow Malawi’s president to appoint women to parliament. However, he retired from government without fulfilling the promise.

Local and international election observers have expressed several concerns about aspects of the May elections, including the monopolising of state media by the UDF. After the vote, the UDF joined forces with its former foes, the Republican Party, the National Democratic Alliance and others, to gain a parliamentary majority.

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