Sunday, May 17, 2009

On the 50-50 Campaign: Letter to Malawian Voters

Dear Malawian Voters,

On the surface, Malawian women appear poised to transform the political landscape on Tuesday, May 19th, when Malawians go to the polls to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. For the first time in our country’s 45-year history, a woman is running for president, and two women are running mates on presidential tickets, one of them on the incumbent’s ticket. The Ministry of Women and Child Development and the NGO-Gender Network have launched what is being termed the 50-50 campaign, aiming to achieve a 50 percent women’s representation in the legislative house. But on closer examination of the numbers of women standing in the constituencies and the districts, the transformation may not have that much of an impact. In fact, there are far too few women running to even achieve a 25 percent representation.

In this post I want to explore what the numbers look like and what that tells us about the place of women in the Malawian body politic. I also want to discuss how careful, uncaricatured, endogenous forms of feminist scholarship and gender activism have been central to the effort to rethink dead-end paradigms to problems of war, conflict, structural and physical violence in the world. I will conclude by repeating what most scholars know already about why including more women in positions of influence and governance is good for our endogenous forms of home-grown democracy. Even more important, it is a potential catalyst for new ways of thinking about the societal problems that have beset Malawi and other societies in other parts of the world.

Though not always interchangeable or synonymous with one another, the concepts of gender studies and feminist scholarship are not without heated controversies, and I am using them here with that caveat in mind. I have chosen to use these terms in the broad sense that African feminists and gender researchers use them, recognizing the endogenous contexts of knowledge production that have enriched the best practices in those fields. Feminist scholarship and gender research have produced vast amounts of indigenous and pragmatic knowledge through decades, if not centuries, of women’s expertise, experiences, perspectives and contributions. Rejecting these disciplines out of an idiosyncratic distaste over caricatured and politicized distortions is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As emancipatory projects that promote inclusive and endogenous democratic practices, feminism and gender research transcend rigid paradigms that have excluded entire groups of people and their knowledge systems. They offer dynamic perspectives into uMunthu as a peace epistemology and as an indispensable vehicle of the African Renaissance project. This is the premise from which I am examining the 50-50 campaign in Malawi and what the numbers look like on the African landscape and beyond.

A brief overview of the numbers of the candidates standing in selected parts of the country paints not so rosy a picture for the chances of women contesting in this year’s elections. A total of 1180 candidates are standing in the May 19 elections across the country, and out of these only 237 are women, based on calculations using the figures provided by the Malawi Electoral Commission. This represents 20 percent of the candidate pool. Out of the country’s 193 constituencies, 144 of them have women candidates. This means 49 constituencies have no women candidates standing, while there is no single constituency that does not have a male candidate.

In the North, there are 228 candidates running, and of these 47 are women, representing 20.6 percent of the candidate pool. For the north, 26 out of 33 constituencies have women candidates. In the Central region 80 women are running out of 399 candidates, making the female representation there 20 percent. The Central region has 73 constituencies, of which only 48 have women candidates. In the south, there are 557 candidates total, and 110 of them are women. Women are represented in 70 constituencies, out of 87 in the southern region. Women in the south make up 19.7 percent of the total number of candidates standing in the elections.

Lilongwe district, where the capital city of Malawi is located, has 22 constituencies, but women are standing in only in 13 constituencies. The district has 115 candidates, the largest in the country, and only 20 of them are women. Blantyre has 13 constituencies, and women are standing in all but one of them. Yet out of the 108 candidates standing in Blantyre, women number up to 19 only.

Only 6 districts out of 28 have managed to field women in each of their constituencies. These are Karonga, Likoma Island (which has only one constituency), Chiradzulu, Mwanza, Nsanje and Neno. Likoma Islands, with its one constituency, has the best parliamentary candidate gender equity in the country. Out of its 6 candidates, half of them are women, making it 50-50. Dedza has the worst gender disparity, with only half of its constituencies managing to field women candidates. Lilongwe comes next, with no women standing in 9 of its 22 constituencies. Mzimba has 92 candidates standing, and only 14 of them are women. These percentages are based on calculations using figures available on the website of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).

As of the last elections of May 2004, there were 25 women parliamentarians in Malawi, out of 193. This figure represented 12.95 percent, according to the Inter Parliamentary Union website

The global leader in female representation in parliament is Rwanda, where out of 80 members, 45 are women, representing 56.25 percent. Sweden follows Rwanda at 47 percent, followed by South Africa, which achieved 45 percent from 34 percent as of the April 22, 2009 elections, becoming third in the world.

In the run up to Tuesday’s elections, the Malawi Ministry of Women and Child Development has teamed up with the NGO-Gender Network to provide financial and material support to women candidates. Women candidates can be heard on the non-partisan, privately-owned Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), in an hour-long program in which the candidates introduce themselves, the constituencies they are representing, their party or independent affiliation, their symbol, and their campaign platform. There are several male activists who are in support of the effort, and their exhortations can also be heard in the campaign commercials. The central point being made is how decades of male-dominated governance and legislation making have not moved the country forward, and how it is time for voters to turn to women. Voters are being told that women stay in their constituencies as opposed to male parliamentarians who once elected move out to the cities, and in some cases divorce their first wives to marry new wives, or cohabit with mistresses. While male politicians are easily corruptible and care more about their economic welfare, women politicians care more about everyone else, roles they play as mothers in everyday life, so go the campaign messages. What is supposed to be a constituent development fund (CDF) meant to be utilized by the people ends up being diverted for personal projects, with no one being involved in deciding how the money should be used for the benefit of the constituency.

But one also hears indistinguishable patterns of paternalism, with some both male and female candidates promising to provide development to their constituencies by bringing hospitals, schools, electricity, pipe water, among other promises. A few candidates are careful not to promise too much, pointing out that no one person can bring development as if it is a commodity one picks from one place (government) and delivers it to the rural areas. Rather, they are promising to collaborate with the people, consult widely, and work with the government and civil society to tap into available resources.

In a recent radio program on Zodiak, representatives from the 50-50 campaign, the Malawi Electoral Commission, civil society and the media sought to provide a rationale for why it is necessary to consider women candidates over their male counterparts. The one journalist on the panel explained that the campaign was decided upon after observations of how other countries were making progress in their development efforts after voting for more women candidates into parliament. He said Malawi was trying to learn from these other countries, and was also a signatory to regional, continental and global treaties dealing with various protocols, including gender equality. Contrast this rationale with a Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) panel also broadcast on Zodiak, in which a member of this regional observer group flown into the country to monitor the elections praised Malawi for setting an example for other countries in Africa and elsewhere to follow. Whether out of modesty or an apparent inferiority complex, Malawians are not shy about their self-identifying poise to learn from other countries in Africa and elsewhere. It is rare to see a Malawian perspective being championed in the Malawian media or in the general social milieu as one others can learn from. It is always about what Malawi should be learning from everyone else on the planet. While corruption, sex scandals, inequality, classicism and other forms of social malfunction happen routinely in Europe, America and other parts of the global North, Africa is still treated as aberrant and unusual both inside the continent an outside.

On its own, the presence of more women in positions of leadership would not necessarily lead to any transformative changes in society. However that point is usually made to argue against efforts to increase women’s representation in positions of influence. A recent debate in the online Malawian newspaper Nyasatimes, between two University of Malawi lecturers, Pascal Mwale and Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula revealed how fractious and acrimonious these debates get when feminist ideology and women taking up leadership positions come up. And this is the case not only in Malawi but everywhere in the world. Mwale, head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, argued that it was “not only opportunistic and manipulative to garner support for oneself and one’s political party from a gender grouping, either male or female, but it is also abusive and exploitative of such a grouping.” In response to Mwale, Kabwila-Kapasula, a feminist theorist and comparative literature scholar-activist in the Department of English also at Chancellor College pointed out that resistance to gender organizing was a measure whose effect was to maintain the patriarchical status quo. She was also quick to add that the women candidates on the presidential and vice presidential tickets in Malawi’s forthcoming elections were not advancing any feminist transformative agenda; rather they were there as agents of patriarchy, co-opted to create a fa├žade of change without promoting any actual change.

On his part, Mwale was careful to offer a sensitive analysis of patriarchy in Malawian society and how it shortchanges women and impedes their progress. What he was rejecting was, in his words, a “counter-progressive” adoption of foreign ideologies with the “assumption of opposition and division between women and men in the equality thesis . . .” Kabwila-Kapasula pointed out that she was not concerned about political parties, which were already patriarchal. “Purporting to be gender blind or neutral is effectively supporting the status quo, which is patriarchy,” she argued.

The caution against African activists adopting foreign ideologies of feminism has been a subject of much scholarly debate in journals and dissertations, but very little has been offered in terms of how authentic feminist scholarship opens up new vistas for rethinking approaches to problems of conflict and violence. It is especially in peace research and peace studies where feminist thought has laid bare the relationship between sexist masculinity and neoliberal militarization (Betty Reardon, (2008). The world average is 18.4 percent, and for Sub-Saharan Africa it is 18.5. Nordic countries have the highest female parliamentary representation, at 41.4 percent, and the Arab region comes last, at 9.1 percent. The United States has 435 members of congress, and of these women make up 73, representing 16.78 percent. The US senate has 100 members, and only 15 are women, at 15 percent (the outcome of the current Minnesota senatorial legal wrangle won’t change this).
Sexism and the War System,1985). This understanding and its emancipatory message of resistance and solidarity should not be lost in the turf battles for the control of the trajectory of feminist ideology. As important as is the critique against the parroting of foreign ideologies to impose them on African contexts, the second-class treatment that women receive is neither an exclusively African nor Euro-American problem; it is a problem in every society. The problems of militarism and war are the preserve of neither African nor Euro-American nations; they are problems in every society.

As Kabwila-Kapasula has argued, the resistance to feminist analyses of gender has the effect of perpetuating the male-dominated status quo, and rarely do critics of feminist theory and gender activism demonstrate a requisite sensitivity to the ethical implications of their reactionary positions. Not only is it sensible to construct structures that dismantle masculinity and its tendency for violence, it is also sensible to promote inclusion for under-represented groups in governance systems. In that regard, it is crucial for more men to champion that effort. It is true that many women leaders are as militant and warmongering as their male counterparts, but it is also true that a significant number of women offer a different way of approaching development, preventing war and resolving conflict (Sanam Naraghi Anderlini,
Women Building Peace, 2007; Aili Mari Trip et. al, African Women’s Movements, 2009). These women’s perspectives matter even more today when violence, both structural as well as physical, has seen a resurgence in the conduct of world affairs. In her recent research on customary land rights in Malawi, the Malawian gender activist Olivia Mchaju Liwewe has pointed out how it is not enough to know that much of Malawian society is matrilineal, when modern legal and judiciary systems treat African traditions as outdated systems impacting women negatively (Liwewe, A History of Diminishing Returns, 2008).

Thus while electing more women into office justifies its own significance as an endogenous democratic principle, it will be useful to use that democratic principle to allow more diverse views and perspectives in how to solve societal problems and advance new knowledges for innovation and transformation. In Malawi this coming Tuesday, the figures do not offer much hope for a 50-50 representation in parliament, but they certainly offer hope for an improvement from the last election five years ago. As more men make the decision to take seriously the importance of feminist approaches to problems of gender violence and a conflict-ridden society, we should also be putting in place curriculum reforms in the teacher education and school systems to make the transformation praxical, generative and self-sustaining.


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