By Cydric Damala
The battle for gender equality in political positions is still far from being won. Sadly, to date, no woman has contested an election since the 2019 tripartite election.
This is despite holding 3 by-elections in Balaka, Kasungu and Lilongwe districts over this period. It is worrisome to note that this is coming at a time the country is experiencing persistent low levels of representation of women in parliament and local councils due to poor participation and unsatisfactory performance.
In the May 2019 parliamentary elections, women only won 45 seats out of the 193 possible seats. Five years earlier, in the 2014 elections only 32 women won. While a total number of 43, 27 and 16 women won parliamentary seat in 2009, 2004 and 1999 elections in that order.
At local government elections, the situation is not any different. Out of the 419 seats at local government elections, only 56 women won in 2014 and 67 in 2019. This represents unsatisfactory performance of 13 percent and 15.9 percent respectively.
This under-performance however does not persist without effort. There are many organizations championing interventions on promoting women in politics. Under the signature banner of 50-50 Campaign and the Women Manifesto Movement among others, civil society players have relentlessly offered women contestants support in the areas of capacity building, campaign visibility, nomination fees and even means of mobility to enable them reach out to electorate. Broadly, their objective is to generate interest in women to participate in elections and boost their chances of success.
However, women representation still remains low. As we speak, the entire districts of Neno and Rumphi do not have any woman as Member of Parliament or councilor. This is despite the two districts presenting 18 positions up for grabs during the 2019 tripartite elections. This trend demonstrates that Malawi still has a long way to fulfill its obligations as stipulated in the Gender Equality Act which provides that at least a quota of 40 percent of the available public positions be held by women.
It is important to note that low women participation and unsatisfactory performance in politics wear many faces. Going through expert reports after each election, it is clear that the problems go beyond provision of technical and financial support by civil society players coupled with seamless incentives offered by the Malawi Electoral Commission, Ministry of Gender.
Over the past elections, political party platforms have proven to be the most viable avenues for achieving equality in political positions. Performance of women affiliated to political parties has been better in elections as compared to those contesting on independent tickets. For example, in the 2019 elections, political parties combined ushered in 32 members of parliament out of the 45 that won the elections. This sharply compares to only 13 that won on independent tickets.
Of the 67 women that made it to local government councils 7 contested as independent candidates while 60 contested on political party tickets. Statistics of the 2014 elections show a similar trend. Of the 32 women that made it to parliament only 11 won as independents while 21 were sponsored by political parties. On the other hand, 54 out of the 56 women that won local government elections were sponsored by political parties while only 2 won as independents
Sadly, the available interventions are too broader and with no key focus on strengthening political party structures to support more women. More often, generalized promises of financial and material support to women have largely only succeeded in increasing the numbers but not the quality of women participating in elections.
While political parties provide a good platform for scrutiny of its candidates through primary elections before facing the electorates, independent candidates run on free will and thus many of them lose even before contesting despite enjoying the necessary support.
On the other hand, the resources that civil society players dangle towards women participation sometimes just end up attracting pretenders leaving out serious candidates whose dreams get shattered at primary elections as a result of lack of support through their political parties.
As the country prepares for by-elections in November and for the elections to come in future, there is need to rethink the modalities of supporting women in order to increase their chances of success. Resources stand to yield intended results if channeled to the right people under viable platforms like political parties.
In order to fast-track the gains made through political parties, more resources need to be redirected towards continuous lobbying for party regulations and laws that provide positive measures such as quotas, reserved seats or all women shortlists. Time to build that momentum is now.
Otherwise, the forthcoming November by-elections in Karonga Central, Lilongwe North West, Phalombe North, Mangochi West, Mangochi North East and Chakwera East present yet another opportunity for gender equality to win at polls.