By: Chisom Onyekwere
The wake of a new political order after 1994 gave rise to a shift in women’s status, rights, and political participation in Malawi.
Over 15 years from 1994 to 2009, women’s representation in parliament rose by 17.1% from 5.2% in 1994. In June 2009, the country saw an above-average increase in the representation of women in the cabinet at 23.8% from 20% in June 2008. In 2014, the representation of women rose to 13.4% from 8.1% in 2000. However, still present is an immense gender gap, resulting in a low representation of women in key decision-making bodies. In 1994, only 10 female candidates succeeded in being elected in the 1994 elections. Former President Mutharika in 2015 nominated only 3 women to his 20-member cabinet—resulting in only 15% of women being represented during his administration at the time.
Malawi’s 2019 Presidential Election initially took place in May 2019. But since the Constitutional Court threw out the results of the May 2019 election due to widespread irregularities, a re-election took place Tuesday, the 23rd of June 2020. Amongst the contenders for President were incumbent Peter Mutharika and Opposition Party Leader Lazarus Chakwera. With 2.6 million votes under his name, representing an estimated 59% of the Malawian population, opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera won the re-election against incumbent Mutharika. The initial election included a total of seven candidates, all male. Former President Banda, the only woman candidate in May 2019, initially ran but pulled out and endorsed Chakwera’s presidential campaign.
Since 1961—after clashes with colonial powers and successful reclaim of its independence—the Republic of Malawi had been run as a de facto one-party state, paving the way for Dr. Hastings Banda to rule dictatorially as president for life. However, in light of rising protests against Malawi’s one-party system, and Banda’s political practices and eventual sickness, the Republic was transformed into a multiparty state in 1993 by a referendum by voters. This new political system in Malawi saw the rise in women’s involvement in politics, as Joyce Banda became the first female president of the republic in 2012.
The Republic of Malawi has been run as a presidential republic with a multi-party democracy since 1994. The country’s most recent constitution—its 1994 constitution---upholds human rights, with a focus on gender equality and the rights of women. So much that the republic created a national machinery to promote women’s rights. However, in-spite of the diversity of Malawi’s political system, political parties that emerged are run predominantly by men, with only 13.4% of women being present in the local councils elected in 2014.
Women’s Political Participation
Joyce Banda, the first female president of Malawi, ran for president again in 2019. However, she withdrew from the race and endorsed Chekwa for president. She was the only female candidate in the election. It is yet to be confirmed what she campaigned for during the 2019 election, but needless to say she withdrew from the presidential race and endorsed Opposition Party leader Lazarus Chakwera.
During her albeit short presidency in 2014, Banda remained devoted to her passion for improving the lives of women and girls in Malawi. She created the Presidential Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood, positioning Malawi in a strong state to fight back against the high maternal mortality rates crippling the country. This initiative saw great success, lowering the maternal mortality ratio from 675 deaths per 100,000 to 460. In leu of the economic instability that welcomed her as she took over as President in 2014, Banda skillfully responded to Malawi’s economic woes by increasing the country’s economic growth from 1.8% in 2012 to 6.2% in 2014.
After the 2019 election, women in Malawi held 22.92% of seats in national parliaments—the highest value since 1990. Though, the percentage—albeit the highest in 29 years—tells us that only 44 out of 192 seats are occupied by women. On top of that, the number represents only the women in the lower or single house, not the upper house. Such data is yet to be confirmed. There is still more that needs to be done for women to be consistently represented as much as possible in every decision-making stage. Current President Lazarus Chakwera appointed women to 12 out of the 31 cabinet positions—thus making a representation of women at the cabinet level 38.7%--a steady increase from 22.92% in 2019 but significant growth from Joyce Banda’s number of women in her cabinet during her time as President (8 out of 31) in 2012. He further assured the people during a news conference that his appointment of women will guarantee adequate representation of women as a whole in his administration. Additionally, the newly selected female cabinet members have advocated to put more efforts in their promotion of women’s rights in the country. For instance, Nancy Tembo—new Minister for Forestry and Natural Resources boldly ensures sustainability for natural resources for the sake of women, whose lives involve everyday use of the country’s natural resources
In light of this, it is well known that Malawi’s progress towards it’s 50:50 gender balance is still low despite its efforts. According to statistical evidence drawn by Kayuni and Chikadza of CHR. Michelsen Institute, less than 50% of women were represented by the political parties campaigning during the 2014 election. For example, the United Democratic Front represented only 51 women out of their 199 candidates—and it was also reported to be the party with the most representation of women candidates. When focusing specifically on women representation in parliament based on committees in Malawi, the numbers are equally unfavorable. By 2014, the representation of women in International Relations was at only 29%. The highest representation of women was seen in Social and Community Affairs and Education, Science and Technology/HR, with a percentage of 33% in each committee.
Malawi is currently ranked 116 out 153 in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. Women in the country face precarious amounts gender-based and sexual violence, systemic and overt inequalities, poverty and food insecurity. Rape is widespread, but hardly reported as a result of stigmatization, in-access to the judicial system and a cultural normalization of sexual abuse. There’s been a wave of outcries against the government and society’s treatment of women, and these have increased in light of several accusations by women and girls against the police for sexual assault in 2019. Sex trafficking is also among the forms of oppression women and girls in Malawi face, as a 14-year old was recruited and trafficked. The case against the trafficker is still pending—further showing that justice for women and girls for too long end up being unnecessarily prolonged and not treated with urgency. A lot of women who’ve protested to the government for the sake of their rights believe that there are policies upheld by the government preventing women from fully contributing to Malawi’s economy. More women than men are reported to be poor, earning only 78% of what their male counterparts are earning. Widows are still held back from owning land due to cultural norms preceding over their legal claims to it.
All in all, there has been progress as Malawi has shown quick responses to the rising issues of gender-based violence and inequality that disproportionately affect girls and women. According to UNFPA annual report for Malawi in 2019, 80 chiefs and community organizers in 6 districts received training on gender-related laws comprising of the rights of women and girls, and how such laws are to be applied to communities. There is more awareness among female sex workers of their rights and gender-related laws, especially laws related to gender-based violence. Additionally, support center facilities and campaigns increasing awareness of violence against women and girls received a total of 4,168 members across communities in the country. However, there is still room for growth and improvements in the ways by which women’s rights and wellbeing are prioritized in Malawi. Hopefully, with more representation of women in the presidential cabinet, women and girls in Malawi will be able to enjoy more freedom and equal participation in political and socio-economic spheres.