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POLITICS-MALAWI: The Bold and the Beautiful

Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Oct 18 2008 (IPS) - The reigning Miss Malawi, Peth Msiska, has hit the campaign trail, not seeking another crown but to be voted into Parliament in her country’s general elections in May 2009.

Msiska says her first priority will be to bring water to her rural constituency. Credit:  Pilirani Semu-Banda

Msiska says her first priority will be to bring water to her rural constituency. Credit: Pilirani Semu-Banda

Msiska, 24, says this is the right time to join the majority Democratic People’s Party (DPP) and run for office because she is "young, focused and determined to serve others as I have always done over the past two years in my capacity as Miss Malawi."

Trading high heels for flat shoes, the beauty queen with a degree in accountancy has swapped fashion and charity events in Blantyre for rallies along dusty roads in her home area of Chileka, in the south of the country.

"I decided to join politics to make a difference in the lives of people, especially those in the rural areas," Msiska told IPS.

Hers is no easy task. Up to 70 percent of Malawi’s population of 14 million is rural, more than half live in poverty and 22 per cent live in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations.

For the people of Chileka, Msiska wants to bring boreholes and taps closer. She knows from her childhood that local women and girls walk up to 10 kilometres to fetch clean water.

Second in her to-do list is bringing electricity. Ironically, Chileka is close to a hydro-electrical power station on the Shire River, Malawi’s longest watercourse, but people here use paraffin lamps and candles.

"Electricity is generated right on their door-steps but they don’t have access to it," she fires. "And it’s unacceptable to see women travelling long distances in search of clean water."

Orphanages and schools are another priority. As Miss Malawi, Msiska fundraised for charities dealing with orphans and the elderly. There are one million orphans in Malawi, according to United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).

Sharon Gonsalves-Chalira, a 25-year-old secondary school teacher from Chileka, is a fan.

"She is an inspiration not only to young women like me but to the whole community here," she told IPS. "Peth will win the elections and I am sure she will deliver all that she’s promising in her campaign speeches."

Msiska is a powerful motivational speaker, urging young women to see themselves just as capable as men. Just like she does: "I am aware that some people might not take me seriously because I am young but politics it is not about age. I am a very determined woman, principled, confident and qualified to be a member of parliament."

Msiska, who is single, has the backing of her family, and derives strength from praying at the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

Walk the talk

Malawian women do not often venture into politics because of harassment, intimidation and cultural perceptions that bind them to domesticity, says Emma Kaliya, of the Gender Coordination Network (GCN).

Malawi scores below the sub-Saharan Africa average of female representation in government. Women account for 14 percent in Parliament, 16 percent in the executive arm of government, and 12 per cent in the judiciary.

In the world ranking of women legislators by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Malawi scored 87 among some 140 countries.

Kaliya says the small number of women in parliament hampers discussions on issues such as maternal deaths and property grabbing from widows.

"We need more women in parliament so that women issues are addressed effectively," said Kaliya.

There is now new hope for improvement. Msiska, like all 425 women parliamentary candidates, has the backing of the 50/50 Campaign, a national effort of government and 42 civil society groups to boost women’s participation in politics and decision-making positions.

The Campaign wants at least half of the 193 parliamentary seats to go to women. It is inspired by the Southern African Development Community target agreed in August by member states, including Malawi, to have a 50 percent representation of women in government by 2015.

To get there, the Campaign is putting its money where its mouth is. All women candidates will be trained in advocacy, lobbying and campaigning, and get $700 as a campaign start-up in their constituencies.

Msiska would not be Malawi’s youngest Member of Parliament. Angela Zachepa was voted into office in 2004 when she was just 22 years old. But Misiska might just be the most glamorous.

Miss Malawi is further inspired by the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican party in the United States, Governor Sarah Palin, who won the third place in the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant.

Unlike Palin, who has received a lot of negative coverage in the American press, Msiska has been portrayed positively in the Malawi media.

"It’s high time that people realised that beauty queens can make great leaders," Msiska told IPS.

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