Recently, Pan African Civic Educators Network (Pacenet), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) whose main goal is to promote the participation of citizens in democratic against governance, developed and launched a gender transformative manual for grassroots engagement towards women’s political empowerment. Last week, the organisation brought together various stakeholders such as political parties, civil society organisations (CSOs) and government to discuss issues raised in the manual at length. Our News Analyst MERCY MALIKWA caught up with Pacenet executive director Steve Duwa for more details. Excerpts:
The manual, which was developed with support from UN Women, is looking at key issues or challenges and barriers to women political leadership and empowerment. The women we are talking about here are the women who express interest to participate in political processes as candidates, as voters, and as supporters of other candidates, among others. So, when we shared the results of the manual—which were based on a survey that we did in Thyolo, Machinga, Dedza and Mzimba—the issue of harassment and political violence against women was singled out as a major contributing factor that discourages women from actively participating in politics or even achieving their political aspirations.
Does the manual state how these challenges and barriers can be addressed?
Key challenges and barriers have been highlighted and explained clearly in the manual. So, developing the manual and identifying the key issues is just one step of a process. The next step was meeting with various stakeholders to appreciate the key issues and the forms of harassment and violence that women suffer and to also specifically look at what needs to be done to address those. During the meetings, harassment and violence were classified and strategies to deal with them were devised. The next step would be ascertaining how the strategies can be made to function. All this is being done to create conducive environments that a woman can contest and possibly win an election.
What are the specific forms of violence and harassment that came out as hindering women from participating in electoral processes?
We are looking at issues of physical violence—for example, women are abused physically and this is not only during an election period. The physical violence can happen anytime. But the point here is that the violence and harassment that they are subjected to sort of discourages them. And we are looking at the violence and harassment they receive because they have shown interest in a political office.
How about the issue of sexual harassment?
Of course, we also looked at sexual harassment. These are the issues that were coming out from our interactions with women who have contested before that sometimes even for them to get positions within their political parties they have to be in good books with leaders. When I say in good books, I mean, they are supposed to have some kind of sexual relationships with powers-that-be in their parties. This becomes worse when we are moving towards the period when parties hold primary elections. This is a form of harassment and we singled it out. Once we identified it, we said, how do we assist these women? The other form of violence is economic. You will agree with me that ever since the issue of women empowerment came to the fore, there have been some attempts to give them some little money which has never been enough. But I think we are looking at ways that would empower them economically so that they would stand on their own. I believe that we require a long-term strategy to empower them instead of giving them small pockets of money that cannot actually help them.
Others would argue that even male political aspirants experience such forms of political violence and they overcome it. So, what is special with women?
Yes, they do. But here we are looking at the magnitude of the problem because the questions that those of us in the gender sector have been asking ourselves are ‘is the problem of low women political participation real?’ The answer is yes. Are we talking about men here? The answer is no. So, even when you look at the factors behind, they may be common but I think in terms of degree, they will actually be different. We are still of the view and studies have proved that women suffer more than men. They are subjected to more violence and harassment in elections than men. But more importantly, when a man and a woman are subjected to violence and harassment, the latter would easily be discouraged and give up. A man would find other means to soldier on. But at the same time, it is the same men who are perpetrators of violence against these women. n