Africa, Africa: Women from P♂lls to P♀lls, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs, Women in Politics

Malawi’s Women Pushing for a Place at the Table

MZIMBA DISTRICT, Malawi, Nov 17 2010 (IPS) - No sooner had Mariness Luhanga announced her intention to contest local elections in Mzimba district in northern Malawi, than she was summoned to appear before a village court on allegations of insulting men.

“I knew that some people in the village were not amused by my campaigns and had started to circulate stories that I was disrespectful to male candidates, that I was calling them names ,” Luhanga, who wants to stand as a People Development Movement (PDM) candidate in Chapitamuno village told IPS.


Campaigning for the local elections had taken her from door to door, village to village through the district, as well as taking advantage of gatherings at her local church or traditional festivals to present herself as a candidate.

Luhanga believes she stirred up the hornets’ nest when she described previous councillors – all men – as “brutes” and lacking in common sense for failing to bring tangible development to the area.

Narrow gender roles only part of problem

"It is not a question of culture or traditions that is putting women off the local polls race: it's illiteracy," said Northern Region Women's Forum chair Lillian Dindi Kumwenda. "Most of the women who aspire for political office have never completed formal education. How do you expect them to articulate issues to prospective voters and convince them?"

In a constitutency like Mzimba district, many of the leading candidates will be relatively well-educated: retired teachers, police officers and other civil servants, now returned to live in the village as farmers.

Women candidates for office in Malawi also generally lack financial resources to produce the posters, t-shirts and printed kitenges that are the mainstay of campaigns here. They typically lose at the primary stage.

“I am quite emotional,” she said. “I think I might have provoked their anger by saying that, but it’s the type of life we lead that has led me to contest the elections. Just imagine we don’t even have a borehole in this ward.”

Luhanga started receiving anonymous SMSs warning her to withdraw from the contest. She saved one that frightened her most: “Don’t risk your life by contesting against men. You must have respect. Going ahead is at your own risk.”

She suspects the messages came from supporters of some of the 10 male contenders for a council seat. Across the country, women who stand for office face hostility, despite the country’s stated commitment to increasing female representation in decision-making posts.

Gender parity

The percentage of women in Malawi’s parliament rose from 15 to 22 percent in the May 2009 elections, but Pan African Civic Education Network Executive Director Steve Duwa says there’s more work to be done.

“It’s an attitude problem, regarding women as inferior to men,” Duwa said. “On paper, the political situation is friendly, but in practice very few women are given the potential to pursue their dreams.”

Duwa said this may have an impact on the government’s effort to achieve 50:50 representation of women in political and decision-making bodies in line with the Southern African Development Community’s Gender Protocol.

Luhanga agrees with Duwa that it is not enough for Malawi to ratify or sign protocols without implementing them.

“Government and NGOs need to work hard to change people’s mindset on the status of women in Malawi because male politicians are violators of legislation that calls for women empowerment.”

But Eric Ning’ang’a, Principal Secretary in the ministry of Gender and Child Welfare disagrees and says the government has now taken charge of the 50:50 campaign where previously NGOs were its champions.

“Government [has a] bigger machinery capable of influencing people and we intend to take the 50:50 campaigns seriously by training women in public speaking and building their capacity.”

Pressing on

Luhanga faces a rough road. The mother of five, who relies heavily on remittances from her husband for income. Like many other men in the village, he made the long trek to South Africa in search of work eight years ago.

The first hurdle was the hearing in the village court. Since colonial times, courts – known as Phala in the local language, Tumbuka – have been convened to resolve important issues in rural areas.

The courts are presided over by the local chief, assisted by elders as the jury. The case against her turned on Luhanga failing to wear a kitenge, the wrap usually worn by a married or older woman – particularly where Luhanga has addressed a public gathering wearing a skirt that exposed part of her calves – this is considered an insult to custom and indicative of someone with loose morals, according to her accusers. In addition, she was accused of saying abusive things against men.

“In the village where most of us are born and bred, women are enjoined to respect men because men are regarded as breadwinners,” says the litigant – and one of her rivals in the election – Dokiso Chizeve. Chizeve claims that although the Ngoni culture values the role they play in society, women’s authority is largely limited to fellow women.

If found guilty, she could expect to be fined – chickens, goats, a quantity of maize, beans or groundnuts – and her campaign would likely suffer.

Luhanga counts off the arguments she made on her right hand.

“One, the fact that I wear or don’t wear a kitenge depends on the situation and that I should not be judged from that. Two, when I called people brutes, I did not mention names. And lastly I asked the court to find the people who had sent the anonymous SMSs to me and try them as well for disturbing my peace and freedom.”

Her arguments found favour with Village Head Zefa Zimba.

“We found the evidence lacking and we therefore dismissed the case,” he told IPS. “But we also reminded Luhanga of the status of women in our Ngoni culture vis-à-vis roles, mandate and authority.”

Duly reminded, Luhanga is pressing on.

“I don’t have much in terms of finances,” she said as her ox cart sets off along a country road to her next meeting, an all-female gathering, “but what I have I am grateful for.”

And if she proves as determined and forceful in office as she has been so far in her campaign, the entire district may have reason to be grateful for her.

Republish | | Print |