Achieving equal representation of men and women in political and decision-making positions continues to be a hot topic in the country. It has been since multiparty politics.
In the run-up to the May 2014 Tripartite Elections, government, NGO-Gender Coordination Network and United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) jointly staged a 50:50 campaign to increase the numbers of women in politics.
However, only 30 women made it to the country’s 193-seater Parliament, down from 43 in 2009 and only 53 women made it in over 350 wards nationwide
And while the results are described as a total defeat to the 50:50 campaign and a vote of no confidence for women, moving forward, activists had hope that things were going to turn-around.
The hope, mainly, was based on the proposal by the Special Law Commission that Section 62(1) be amended that the composition of the National Assembly should include a district constituency where only women candidates would contest.
This was going to make a legal provision for increased participation of women in elected office and governance.
The proposal meant an automatic additional of 28 women parliamentarians in the National Assembly while both male and female candidates would continue to battle it out for the 193 seats.
As a matter of fact, when President Peter Mutharika attended the European Development Days (EDD) in Brussels, Belgium in June this year, he showed total commitment to see the proposal turning into reality.
The President disclosed to world leaders that his government was going to propose that Parliament approves that during the forthcoming 2019 elections there should be one constituency per district to be contested only by women.
Speaking when he delivered his keynote address at the event, Mutharika said the move aimed at empowering women and for Malawi to achieve gender equality.
“For the first time in the history of Malawi, in our 2019 elections we will have at least one constituency in each of the 28 districts dedicated to the election of women only members of Parliament,” Mutharika said.
With the proposal, coupled with the President’s remarks, gender backers started counting the gains and they rode on the public utterance. Actually, they celebrated in advance.
However, the hope is now gone as the provision was removed from the Constitution (Amendment) Bill number 2 which was debated in Parliament in the just-ended sitting.
It did not even get to see the light of the day.
In justifying the removal of the proposal, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu said the proposal had the potential to disadvantage women candidates in other constituencies.
However, gender activists think otherwise.
Emma Kaliya, chairperson of NGO-GCN, questions why others are thinking that the 28 women would become super women, supervisors of other MPs in the district and that the law reform wanted to wheelchair women to Parliament.
“There is so much misunderstanding on the issue. It is wrong to think like that. Let us think about the future. Let us not just think about ourselves.
“Let us think about those that will be there after us. What legacy are we going to leave behind if we cannot understand the process of law reform?” she asks.
Kaliya wonders how the country is going to achieve the 50:50 quota if provisions meant to bring change such as the 28 automatic seats for women continue to be thrown away.
UN Women Malawi programme specialist for gender and governance Emmily Naphambo describes the fact that the provision did not even make it to Parliament as a loss, not for the women, but for the country.
“The 28 seats provision is a gender equity issue. Gender equity is where you are bringing in a strategy to temporarily address a certain problem,” she says, adding that: “The issue of the 28 seats was to serve that purpose of being a temporary measure of promoting women political participation just as we are making other efforts of promoting them.”
She says by removing the proposal, it means the country is perpetrating the fact that women should be underrepresented in politics.
And for a country that knows the different challenges that women face in their quest to participate in politics, achieving the 50:50 representation of men and women in political circles might be a farfetched dream.
“Unfortunately, if we are talking about development for a country like Malawi, we cannot achieve it if we have got half of the population left out.
“We expect women to be present elsewhere but not on the decision-making table. I think that is pathetic,” says Naphambo.
Steve Duwa, executive director for Pan African Educators Network (Pacenet), a local non-governmental organisation that has been supporting women empowerment and political participation since 2004, expresses disappointment that the proposal was thrown away.
Duwa is of the view that the country does not know what to do in order to promote women participation in politics.
“This is a process we started a long time ago—during the 2004 elections when we were fighting for 30 percent as per Sadc [Southern African Development Community] protocol. After that, we moved on to 50:50 and we are continuing with that.
“If you look at the figures of women who are showing interest to participate in politics, it is steadily increasing and if you look at the number of women elected to Parliament and councils, you will find that the best we did was in 2009. In 2014 the figures dropped,” he says.
He wonders why people have been asking why that is the case.
“We think we can continue with what we are doing and achieve 50:50 campaign? I don’t think that is possible,” he reaffirms.
However, he is of the view that all is not lost. It is a question of determination from all those working in the gender sector. They just need to come together and implore all MPs to demand that the Bill be brought to Parliament so that they should support it.
“We cannot do without that. And I want to believe that the President still stands by what he has been saying on this matter.
“Otherwise we are going to be a nation that is deceitful, we are telling everybody that we are supporting women while we deliberately distance ourselves from efforts that are very clear in terms of creating opportunities for women,” he says.