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MALAWI: Changing the Face of Politics

Paula Fray and Laure Pichegru

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 15 2010 (IPS) - The face of politics is changing in the southern African country of Malawi. And civil society is making plans to ensure that it changes even more.

Fresh from a dramatic increase in the number of women representatives elected into national government last year, the NGO Gender Coordination Network is already implementing plans for the Malawi’s “50/50 campaign” to ensure that more women than ever before sit in local government seats after the November elections.

Their enthusiasm is inspired by the dramatic increase in the number of women representatives elected to national government during the 2009 elections.

A record number of 237 female candidates stood during the May 2009 elections with 42 women making the journey into parliament. By doing so, Malawi’s female representation increased from 14 to 22 percent.

Emma Kaliya, chair of the NGO Gender Coordination Network implementing Malawi’s 50/50 campaign, was recently honoured with a Southern African Trust “Drivers of Change” Award for her role in the campaign.

Kaliya told IPS that various strategies were being used to change perceptions about women’s capacity for political leadership in the national “50/50 campaign – 2009 and beyond“.

“The first thing we did was to conduct a needs assessment of the aspiring women candidates. We reviewed both sitting MPs and those candidates who were aspiring to stand. We collected about 400 names from political parties, our own structure and from district assemblies,” Kaliya said.

After assessing the needs of the women, the organisation then arranged capacity building for those candidates: “We began profiling them through the mass media as well as through community mobilisation meetings. We would take aspiring women candidates to community meetings where we would discuss why the community should support women candidates.”

The organisation assisted the women with campaign materials and promotional items like T-shirts. “We also gave them some funds for transportation purposes during the campaign. The money was not much but it helped those who wanted to campaign,” Kaliya said.

The current minister for persons with disabilities and the elderly, Reen Kachere, is one of the women who benefitted: “The exercise was a great experience to learn from in order to inform future elections where gender issues are concerned. I came out from the experience more knowledgeable and with win-win strategies for women.”

Malawi developed a national programme in 2008 responding to the 50/50 requirements before the SADC Gender and Development Protocol was adopted.

The 50/50 campaign is already drawing on a list of candidates to participate in the November 2010 local government elections. “We are collecting names, consulting with all parties and going to district assemblies to identify women candidates. The national 50/50 campaign is for all women, regardless of the party they are coming from,” Kaliya said.

Because of these campaigns, women are beginning to understand the need for them to participate in politics if they want to change the laws that affect them, Kachere said.

MP Anita Kalinde added that women also needed assistance from NGO’s to be able to get into politics: “Women need to be assisted right from the primaries and also after, where they compete with their male colleagues.”

Kaliya added that in the last election the media played a crucial role in profiling the women candidates assisting them to reach distant communities they could not travel to with their messages.

“Radio profiling helped most. All 237 candidates who stood were given space to talk about their manifestos on local radio…Women are usually invisible during election campaigns or there are usually only negative stories (about them) but this time around we got real support. Every day we were reading or hearing something about the 50/50 campaign,” Kaliya said.

But there are still challenges that women candidates have to overcome. “If we did not have the SADC (Southern African Development Community) protocol, it would be very difficult because Malawi has an equality element in the constitution but it does not have a quota or affirmative action in the framework. The electoral systems – not having proportional representation – are a big barrier because women are competing with men who have a lot of resources,” Kaliya said. (The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development commits countries to work towards the goal of having 50 percent women in political and decision-making positions by 2015.)

The commercialisation of the elections is also a challenge. “Women have to compete with men. Unlike men, they do have a lot of money. You need resources: you cannot campaign if you don’t have a vehicle because most places are far apart,” explained Kalinde.

But female politicians are also getting more support from all voters, men and women. “People are gradually accepting the gender dimension. The realisation of the need for women to participate in the development of their nations through elected positions is growing and impacting on cultural practices that marginalised women,” said Kachere.

Kaliya explained that while more women than men voted during elections, initially women would vote for male candidates – even if there was a woman standing for election. But the 50/50 campaign has changed that.

“But now, more women are voting for women. You could even see old, old, women coming to vote and they would say: ‘This time around we have to vote for women. The government has said it – even men – so why should we not vote for women?’”

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