opinionBy Daud Kayisi
Lilongwe — As 2014 tripartite elections draws closer, debates are widespread on who is the best person to govern the country for the next four years.
The main competing candidates are Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF), Arthur Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ungapake Tembo of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and of course the incumbent President Joyce Banda of The People's Party (PP).
Hailed for being the first female president in Southern Africa after coming into power after the Bingu Mutharika's death in 2012, President Banda has built up a remarkable reputation by putting Malawi on a steady recovery path by implementing numerous economic and political reforms.
Muluzi's popularity has grown under the UDF, however his youth lends both to his advantage and disadvantage; by garnering support from many Malawians under 50 and on the other hand being considered far too young to lead the country.
Tembo earns great respect for his considerable experience and being one of the longest serving members of parliament in Malalwi. However, clashes over his leadership have created divisions within the MCP.
Finally, the DDP and Arthur Peter Mutharika are tarnished by the bad reputation of Malawi's late and most recent tyrant Bingu Mutharika. The one area where the DPP may have a chance is their policy to prosecute homosexuals and such homophobia has the support of many voters and religious institutions. Being the only female candidate, Banda on the other hand, has not only suggested revoking the criminalisation of homosexuality, but is an advocate of gender equality in Malawi.
The 2014 elections are especially important because Malawi is among the 15 southern African countries that is a signatory to the 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.
The protocol demands equal representation of women and men in all decision-making positions by 2015. According to the SADC Protocol Barometer, written and published by Gender Links (GL), Malawi only has a 22% representation of women in parliament, far below the needed 50%.
With less than two and half years to the Protocol timeline, Malawi is still among the few countries in the region that has a chance of meeting the target. Lesotho has the highest proportion of women in any area of political decision-making in SADC with 49% women in local government, while Seychelles is leading with the highest level of overall representation of women in government.
All political parties in the country should come up with deliberate policies that encourage more women to contest in the next elections. Secondly, the Malawi Electoral Commission has a crucial role to play in inspiring more women to contest, by mainstreaming gender in all its rules and regulations.
Finally, the media has a vital duty as well. Gender and elections reports by GL reveal that media reportage during elections is mostly bias towards men. The reports indicate that the media portrays women in very stereotypical ways, thus decreasing their chances in both contesting and winning the elections.
Good work being done by African Union Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealais, Nigeria's Finance Minister and President Banda of Malawi, is testimony to the powerful potential of women and that given the chance, women can deliver.
Since her rise to power nine months ago, Banda has introduced a rare type of leadership, which is exemplary to Malawi and beyond. In its July 2012 newsletter, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa reported that Banda's presidency is "no small milestone" to gender equality and her leadership style demonstrates that women can equally lead and help the country develop. Banda's administration also continues to receive kudos for upholding the rule of law and repealing some undemocratic laws.
Furthermore, she is not only restricting the luxurious tendencies of former Malawian presidents but is also selling the presidential jet as part of the economic recovery plan, on top of having slashed her own salary by 30%.
Most pertinently, she continues to champion gender equality, having introduced a number of projects like the Support to the Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Agenda as well as Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood, aimed at empowering and changing the lives of Malawian women.
Despite Banda's backing of gender equality, she needs to do more in practice by appointing more women in cabinet as well as directing more of the national budget toward actually economically empowering women on the ground, considering women account for more than 71% of all full-time farmers in Malawi.
Although her leadership has garnered support and her incumbency lends an advantage in the elections, the high inflation following economic reforms has led to protests and a loss of popularity. Nevertheless, unlike her predecessors, she upheld people's right to demonstrate and her government pledged to deal with the issues raised by protestors.
The 2014 Elections could be a great opportunity in getting Malawi closer to the 50% target as well as allowing Banda a full term in office to further her efforts in gender equality and overall economic development.
Let us hope President Banda's exemplary leadership acts as a wakeup call to all political parties, to put women at the centre of their agenda. The time is now for everyone to realise that having more women in leadership and decision-making positions is not only important for democracy but to ensure all in society have the equal opportunity to exercise their rights.
As Michelle Bachelet, UN Women Executive Director argues, "By making full use of half of the world's intelligence - the intelligence of women - we improve our chances of finding real and lasting solutions to the challenges that confront us."
Daud Kayisi is a Malawian gender, media & development activist and freelance journalist who writes for Gender Links.