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POLITICS-MALAWI: Elections Get Ugly For Women

Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Malawi, Nov 24 2008 (IPS) - Malawi’s primary elections are getting ugly for women candidates. Shoving, derogatory songs and being pelted with stones are just some of the intimidating tactics aimed at discouraging women from contesting the primary elections that will select candidates for the parliamentary polls in May 2009.

Lilian Patel: Male politicians fail to protect women. Credit:  Pilirani Semu-Banda/IPS

Lilian Patel: Male politicians fail to protect women. Credit: Pilirani Semu-Banda/IPS

Gertrude Nya Mkandawire, one of the strongest members of parliament (MP) for the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP), recently withdrew from the primaries in her Mzimba Solora constituency, in the north, where she was running against 10 men.

"I can’t take it anymore," Nya Mkandawire told IPS. "I have faced different kinds of intimidation from fellow contenders, who are all men."

Angry crowds sang demeaning songs and shoved her around at rallies. "They have been destroying my campaign materials, including flags and posters, in the night to discourage me from contesting," she added.

The last straw came when DPP committee members and primary delegates demanded money.

"They said I can only win the elections after I pay them some money and I didn’t find this proper," she told IPS.

The culture of handouts is common here during elections. Politicians distribute money, food and blankets to their constituents, claiming it is their way of sharing wealth.

Gender activist Veronica Njikho says the practice of freebies disadvantages women politicians because men already have an established financial capacity that women do not.

"Only 23 percent of women have an equal say as their partners in economic matters at home and they do not have the same financial muscle as their male counterparts when it comes to politics," Njikho said.

Women drop out

Njikho is a champion of the 50/50 Campaign, led by government and 42 civil society groups, to boost women’s participation in politics and decision-making positions.

The Campaign has condemned the intimidation and harassment of women candidates. Violence is marring some rallies for men candidates as well.

"There is a lot of political violence being reported from all corners of Malawi and this is discouraging a lot of women from participating in the elections," said Njikho.

The gender expert explained that most women do not want to be associated with or be victims of abuse: "Naturally, women are not violent people."

An unprecedented 425 women wanted to run for parliament at the onset of the 50/50 Campaign but only 200 persevered. "The rest dropped from the race mainly due to the harassment and intimidation," Njikho told IPS.

She fears that the growing reports of intimidation during the primaries will prompt more women to abandon politics.

The Campaign seeks to see women win at least half of the 193 seats in the national assembly, in keeping with the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender, signed in August, which mandates a 50 percent representation of women in government by 2015.

Malawi scores below the Sub-Saharan average of female representation in parliament, with women accounting for 14 per cent of its national assembly.

The biggest challenge for the Campaign, said Njikho, is the uneven political playing field. Men hold the top political positions, they support their fellow men and resist women candidates.

Leaders fail women

Lilian Patel, an MP and chair of the Malawi Parliamentary Women Caucus, blamed party leaders for these problems. Just like the DPP, the other main political parties – the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) – are headed by men.

"All political parties in the country have failed to put up deliberate efforts to ensure that women are propped up," said Patel, a UDF member.

On Nov. 13, a primary election in the lake district of Nkhatabay ended with a stampede, when DPP supporters started throwing stones after a dispute over eligible voters. Three women were contesting these primaries.

Meanwhile, Nya Mkandawire is not giving up on politics. She is considering running as an independent candidate or joining another party.

To discourage this choice, the DPP came up with a trick, she explained. DPP candidates collecting the nomination forms for the primaries had to sign a declaration that, in the event of losing, they would support the winners, and not run as independents or join other parties.

"The declaration would have been fair if the elections were fair but, in this case, we have to look for other alternatives if we have to stay in politics," said Nya Mkandawire.

Dodging stones and insults is not an alternative she will consider. Respect and safety for all women candidates, that is what she wants.

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