"I have always wanted to represent the people in my area as a ward councillor, but l gave up this dream because I was afraid to contest against men, thinking that I cannot win." Sarah Kulemeka of the Ntcheu district also gave up on this dream because she could not afford the nomination fee.
Many women in Malawi face the same insecurities and financial obstacles, but there is new hope for aspiring female politicians following efforts by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare to educate people about the importance of women in political decision-making positions. Even more hopeful is the Malawi Electoral Commission's (MEC) recent reduction of the nomination fee.
Malawi may be the only country in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) with a female President, but the number of women in senior political positions remains very low.
Women only hold 22 percent of the positions in parliament and 30 percent in cabinet. Government has continually postponed local government elections; the last held back in 2000 resulted in women receiving only eight percent of the positions. Malawi will hold the next local government elections in 2014 along with the parliamentary and presidential elections.
However, with greater political will and continued commitment to the SADC Gender Protocol, although Malawi may not reach the 50 percent target by 2015, the country could achieve and even surpass a 30 percent representation of women.
This is according to the latest research compiled by Gender Links and the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, who will launch the 2013 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer at the upcoming SADC Heads of State Summit held in Lilongwe, Malawi this month.
The Principle Secretary of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, Dr Mary Shawa, says the civic education programme aims at encouraging more women to participate and contest in the forthcoming tripartite elections. With the first phase of voter registration closing on 6 August 2013 and the second phase set to start on 8 August 2013, creating awareness is crucial to building confidence among the female electorate.
"We want more women to contest as Members of Parliament (MPs). We hope that through this programme women will realise that they can also become political leaders in their communities and serve the people," explains Shawa.
In another show of political will and commitment to the 50-50 campaign, the MEC has recently reduced the nomination fee by 25 percent for the female candidates. The discount aims to ensure equal opportunity and to encourage more women to contest in both local government and national elections. The MEC has shown great enthusiasm, urging all political parties to bring more women on board to include them in political processes.
Lilian Patel, United Democratic Front (UDF) National Organising Secretary, who will contest as MP for Mangochi South Constituency, applauds the move to reduce the nomination fees. "In the past, many women failed to contest as MPs and councillors because they could not easily raise the nomination fee. This is a big opportunity for women who want to contest in the forthcoming tripartite elections," explains Patel.
Dr Agustine Magolowondo, a political analyst based in Lilongwe gives a thumbs up to the MEC and Ministry's efforts, but points out that these efforts will be ineffective if the political parties do not join the fight for gender equality. The Post electoral system tends not to favour women's participation since women can only be elected into office through their political parties.
"It is a welcome development because this will open doors for more women to contest in the next elections. However, political parties should also participate in the promotion of women by putting them in different decision-making positions. Political parties should put in deliberate policies that will ensure there is equal presentation of women and men in different party positions," explains Magolowondo.
Although there are no legislated quotas, a number of political parties in Malawi have quotas to increase women's representation within their structures; for example, the United Democratic Front (UDF) endorses a 25 percent quota while the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) commits to 30 percent. However, these do not translate into tangible representation, since not one political party in Malawi boasts female representation of 20 percent or more.
In addition, no country in the region has ever substantially increased women's representation without enforcing special measures. Women constitute 16 percent of parliamentarians and nine percent of councillors in countries without quotas, compared to 38 percent of parliamentarians and 37 percent of councillors in countries with quotas.
Having quotas in place, Lesotho has the highest proportion of women in any area of political decision-making in SADC, with 49 percent women in local government, and Mauritius dramatically increased women's representation from six percent to 26 percent in one election, at local level in December 2012.
Creating awareness and reducing nomination fees undoubtedly contributes to increasing the chances of aspiring women like Kulemeka at the local government level, but without wholehearted commitment from political parties to ensure women hold positions of power in cabinet and parliament, achieving gender equality will remain hamstrung.
The clock is ticking toward the 2014 elections and the 2015 SADC Gender Protocol deadline. Hopefully, with the increased efforts and pressure from civil society organisations, political leaders in Malawi will step up to the plate and forge ahead to achieve 50-50.
The upcoming Heads of State Summit in Lilongwe is a great opportunity for the entire region to turn up the heat and ensure governments put gender equality on high priority, and make certain that by 2015, the SADC regional average of women in political decision-making far exceeds the current 24 percent.
- Dyson Mthawanji is a third year Journalism student at University of Malawi (Polytechnic). This article is part of Gender Link's Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news.