The push for equal gender representation - known as 50-50 campaign - gained momentum in Malawi's recent election campaign, but did not produce the expected results. The May 20 election actually saw a significant drop in the number of women elected, with only 32 seats in parliament going to women as opposed to 43 in 2009. The stats are worse in local races. Malawi ranks among the countries with the lowest female representation.
Poor performance, 50-50 campaign
Gender activists say the poor performance of women candidates in the May elections was shocking, and they have not yet determined the cause.
"I don't think we have been able to establish the real reasons why women have performed dismally during the elections," said Emma Kaliya, national coordinator for the NGO Gender Coordinating Network, which championed the campaign. "Basically what I can say is that all what is supposed to be done was done. And therefore we did not expect the numbers that we got eventually."
Throughout the campaign, her organization was providing financial, material and moral support to all the women candidates, regardless of political party affiliation. In addition, the more than 250 women candidates for parliament and 2,000 women campaigning for councilor were trained in public-speaking techniques and skills on how to attract voters.
But this did not work to the expectations of the campaigners.
Kaliya said changes are needed in the Malawi electoral system. She said the country should have a proportional representation in which each party presents its list of candidates and receives seats in proportion to its overall share of the national vote.
Kaliya said African countries like South Africa, Mozambique and Uganda use a proportional representation system that has helped increase the number of women in decision-making positions.
The chairperson of the Women's Caucus in Malawi's parliament, Jessie Kabwila, said she believes the way Malawi's President Joyce Banda performed in office may have influenced some voters not to vote for any women candidate.
"The fact that we had a woman president who became synonymous with Cashgate [a corruption scandal in which more than $30 million of public funds were looted from government coffers], and lots of government failures impacted highly on the standing as a woman in this election," said Kabwila.
Banda was highly criticized for allowing the scandal to happen under her administration. The scandal prompted major donors to suspend their financial support to the country.
But Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Mary Shawa, blames the dismal performance of women during the polls on the patriarchal nature of Malawi society, which she said looks down upon women.
"Most people who vote people into power are those in the village. Within their cultures there are aspects that they believe in, so if in my culture they believe the woman cannot be my boss, I will not vote for a woman," she said. "It's not a question of the ministry doing something about it's about every Malawian how do they view and look a women. It's an ordinary chief in the village how does he view and look at a woman."
She said the fight for equal representation of men and women in decision-making positions will not be won unless society changes its perceptions toward women.
Meanwhile, the gender activists in Malawi are expected to hold a conference in August to discuss what went wrong for women in the elections. The delegates also are expected to plot strategy for the country's 2019 elections.