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POLITICS: Malawi’s Women Challenge For Top Posts

Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Mar 4 2009 (IPS) - Sitting side by side, clothed in bright traditional outfits complete with headgear, they looked like any of the women who always dance and ululate for politicians at rallies.

Dancers at a political event -- women are gradually taking a seat at the high table. Credit:  Pilirani Semu-Banda/IPS

Dancers at a political event -- women are gradually taking a seat at the high table. Credit: Pilirani Semu-Banda/IPS

But Loveness Gondwe and Beatrice Mwale are exceptional: with their newly formed Rainbow Coalition party, they are vying for the country’s top most positions of president and vice president respectively in Malawi’s May 19, 2009 presidential elections.

Malawi’s current president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has also picked a woman, Joyce Banda, to be his running-mate in the elections. But it is yet to be seen if the women will indeed make it to the top.

Such political positions have so far been a domain for men in Malawi – a woman’s role has mainly been limited to dancing and cheering for their leaders – mostly men.

For instance, Gondwe, the country’s first female presidential aspirant, has not had it easy in politics. She formed the Rainbow Coalition Party because the Alliance for Democracy (Aford), the party she has represented since 1994 – rising higher than any woman before her in the national assembly, where she was voted to the position of First Deputy Speaker – refused to endorse her as presidential candidate.

“I am an achiever and capable of bringing positive change to people’s lives and I am qualified to lead this nation,” Gondwe told the local media upon presenting her presidential nomination letter to the Malawi Electoral Commission.

She said if elected, she would like to make more employment opportunities available to the youth, in a country where the unemployment rate is at 45.5 percent.

Gondwe also aims to improve the conditions of service for civil servants who are the lowly paid and to support small holder farmers who play a big role in Malawi’s economy, which is predominantly agricultural.

“I would also like to see the maternal death rate going down so that women are able to participate in development work,” Gondwe said. Malawi’s maternal mortality is one of the highest in the continent at 807 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Banda, President Mutharika’s running-mate, who was Malawi’s foreign minister before her appointment, also told the media that she has been fighting a hostile environment as a female politician.

“I have had to learn how to navigate and find my way. People have seen my performance as a member of parliament. I am not emotional but solid and realistic. I have done my best as a cabinet minister and I will prevail in any political, social and economic storm,” said Banda.

All women vying for political positions in Malawi are benefitting from the support being rendered by the 50:50 Campaign, a national programme on increasing women’s participation in politics and decision-making positions. The campaign is being coordinated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development with support from international donors including the United Nations.

The programme provides campaign finances and materials to women aspiring to political positions, to expose them to the public through media and to provide them with training in personal development. Up to 150 women have presented their nominations papers to contest for the 193 parliamentary seats. Currently, there are only 27 women out of the 193 members in Malawi’s Parliament.

Programme coordinator for the 50:50 Campaign in the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Bertha Sefu, admits that it is an uphill battle to achieve equal participation for women in decision-making positions.

Sefu told IPS that Malawian society favours men more than women but that the 50:50 Campaign has managed to position women well and that the country is now realising that women can be trusted with decision-making positions.

“We have seen that the women candidates for political positions are getting more and more support from both men and women and we hope this means that the situation is changing. We are optimistic that we will have women in the very top positions of government by May,” said Sefu.

Beyond the selection of Banda as Mutharika’s running-mate, people have to wait for the elections results in May to see if indeed more women are being given the opportunity to be political leaders.

While the situation seems to be growing more favourable for women in politics; it is a different story in the civil service and private sector. Currently, only seven women out of 38 are in ministerial positions – only four are full ministers and three are deputies. Just five out of 38 permanent secretaries in government ministries are women and just 21 percent in other top level positions are held by women. In the judiciary, women are not well represented either, since there are only four female judges out of 27.

On the positive side, the positions of chairperson of Malawi electoral commission, clerk of parliament, chairperson of Malawi Human Rights commission, attorney General and parliamentary draftsperson are currently being held by women.

Gender specialist for the United Nations in Malawi Veronica Njikho says the focus now is on the forthcoming elections but once that is over, there will be a review of the 50:50 campaign to start focusing on the participation of women in all levels of decision-making including the private sector.

“We will also be lobbying for the participation of women in trade union movements,” said Njikho.

Meanwhile it seems like the women of Malawi would still want to continue dancing for political leaders; whether male and female and Banda, the vice president nominee, is one of them.

“Because I am an African, we dance as part of our culture and identify. We dance during birth, we dance when we brew beer, we dance when we praise God, we dance when there is death, we dance when we install chiefs. We dance as a form of appreciation and expression of our feelings,” said Banda.

She said dancing is part of who Malawians are. “It does not take away anybody’s dignity. I will dance alone as an African. I have advised my children that when I die, nobody should cry, but celebrate my life, I expect people to dance in celebration of my life. Dancing is part of who we are and we cannot stop that,” said Banda.

It is yet to be seen if men will be forming dance groups for women politicians.

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