Voice of America (Washington, DC)

18 April 2014

Malawi Women Intensify Fight for Equal Space in Public Office

Blantyre — Women rights campaigners have intensified their 50/50 drive to have equal representation in the May 20 elections. Malawi ranks as one of the countries with low female representation not only in southern Africa, but globally. At the moment, only 22 percent of 193 parliamentary seats are held by women.

Gender activists hope that May's tripartite elections will boost the number of women holding public office - both locally and nationally.

Their campaign on billboards, radio and television aims to woo voters to support many of the more than 2,000 women vying to be lawmakers and local councillors.

"About 52 percent of Malawi's population is women," said Emmie Chanika, the chairperson for the permanent committee of the NGO Gender Coordinating Network. "And what we are talking about is that women should not just be used for dancing and for reproduction, but they should also use their intellect and whatever knowledge God can give them. In Malawi most of the farming is done by women. Why should we leave them out in leadership?"

The organization is providing financial, material and moral support to all women candidate regardless of political party affiliation.

Getting help

Chanika says aspiring MPs are given about $500 each; while aspiring councilors get about half that amount as capital for their campaign meetings. In addition, women have received training in public speaking.

Activists have also formed a media task force - comprising editors and journalists from various local news organizations - to help them raise profiles of female candidates.

"So far we have done profiles for those women, and we have interacted with the women candidates on what issues they want to put forward as they do their campaign, as well as giving them space in the media houses so that they should be known to the electorate," explained Wezzie Nyirongo, the editor at Capital Radio who serves as a vice chairperson for the media task force.

Nyirongo said in past elections, male candidates dominated media coverage due to the fact they had the money and means to finance a campaign.

Despite these efforts, some female candidates say they are not benefiting and describe the 50/50 drive as more theoretical than practical.

More money needed

Aisha Mambo, the aspiring parliamentarian for the opposition United Democratic Front in the Mangochi-Nkungulu constituency, told VOA that while she appreciates the strides the campaigning is making through radio advertisements, the assistance given is too little to help women to win.

"In fact, I expected to get more financial support from them but as I am talking to you, what I got from them is only 200, 000 [Malawi] Kwacha [$500] which is even not enough for one campaign rally. And I also expected to get material support from them. But what we have heard is that they may give us 50 T-shirts which is not even enough," said Mambo.

An aspiring councilor in Blantyre, who opted for anonymity for "fear of reprisals," said the 50/50 campaign is spending too much money on media to make ads and jingles to promote women in general. She argues the money would be better spent financing individual campaigns.

Emmie Chanika defends the Gender Coordinating Network's efforts, noting the assistance given only aims to compliment what the candidates had budgeted for and not necessarily to fully bankroll their campaign.

Not enough women candidates

The Sunday Times social commentator, George Kasawala, has written in his column that he doubts this 50/50 drive will yield the desired results in the May polls. He said there are only 257 women out of a total of 1,292 candidates vying for the 193 parliamentary seats. He also noted that 44 constituencies have no women running at all.

He suggested that Malawi should have taken a page from Rwanda's book - which legislated affirmative action by reserving 30 percent of seats in parliament for women. Women now hold half the legislative seats in the lower house in Rwanda - making the small African nation number one in the world when it comes to the number of female lawmakers.

Malawi's President Joyce Banda - who is running in the May 20 vote - is one of only three African women to hold the highest office.

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