/ 13 December 2005

Catching up with Malawi’s female legislators

More than a year ago, Inter Press Service (IPS) profiled several of the women who had won seats in Malawi’s Parliament, something that enabled them to break new ground in the drive to make the legislature less of male-dominated forum.

This month, IPS decided to catch up with some of the women again. Had their experiences in Parliament lived up to expectations — or down to apprehensions? What lessons could they pass on to other women who had their sights set on becoming parliamentarians?

For Gertrude Mkandawire, life since the May 20 2004 general election has been a protracted balancing act as she tries to reconcile her legislative responsibilities with caring for two children — as well as nephews, nieces and grandchildren, several of whom are orphaned.

Wearing different hats, the 50-year-old widow says, has sometimes proved too demanding.

”With a year’s experience as MP, I should be very honest and say that this job may not be suitable for mothers of young children,” she says. ”One side is bound to suffer.”

Speaking to IPS in June last year, Mkandawire told of how she had needed to coax men in her northern Mzimba-Solora constituency to support her electoral bid, as the notion of women in Parliament had proved a little difficult for these Ngoni traditionalists to swallow. Several months on, the men appear quite comfortable with having Mkandawire in a position of leadership — much to her relief.

”They have actually confessed that they wasted a lot of opportunity for development by electing male MPs in the past. In turn, I have undertaken to treat them as their mother.”

Mkandawire is a member of the opposition People’s Transformation Party.

Deputy minister

What of Marjorie Ngaunje, one of the legislators who ran on an independent ticket in the central Ntcheu Bwanje-South constituency? In a development that she herself could probably not have predicted, Ngaunje now finds herself Malawi’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Some view the appointment as an attempt by President Bingu wa Mutharika to entice her to join his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), formed earlier this year after the head of state left the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Mutharika said his efforts to clamp down on corruption had drawn fire from UDF members; he has since been at pains to attract legislators to the DPP, which lacks a parliamentary majority. The UDF is pushing for Mutharika’s impeachment, accusing him of — among other things — having used government money to establish the DPP.

Ngaunje brushes aside claims that she has changed her independent status.

”Who said I have joined the DPP? I’m happy to remain independent and have chosen to work with government as an independent,” she says. ”My Cabinet position is a national duty and should not be mistaken for a domestic job.”

While Parliament was the scene of political skirmishes in 2005, life outside was scarcely less problematic, with dire food shortages ravaging the country. The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) reported this month that 4,7-million people, about half the country’s population, were in need of supplies. (The MVAC is made up of government and donor agencies.)

Mkandawire says she has tried to secure food aid and fertiliser subsidy coupons for her constituents. These coupons allow recipients to buy the cheaper fertiliser that the government is distributing under its universal fertiliser subsidy scheme.

”To prevent future catastrophe, I made sure many of my constituents accessed the fertiliser coupons. Hopefully they should harvest more next year,” said Mkandawire.

Short on creativity

Overall, however, female parliamentarians were short on creative ways of addressing the crises facing Malawi, with little to offer in the way of groundbreaking legislative initiatives, says Boniface Dulani. The head of political science at the University of Malawi attributes this to the low number of female MPs and their tendency to vote along partisan lines.

”Unfortunately, there is very little to show for their first year. Of course, the issue of numbers is important here: there are very few women in Parliament, and this might be a major factor in limiting potential innovation,” he says.

There are currently 27 women in the 193-member legislature — just 14% of the total number of MPs. In 1997, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) set 2005 as the year by which 30% of government decision-making posts in member states should be occupied by women.

This figure was increased to 50% in August, even though 11 of the Southern African Development Community’s 14 member states missed the initial target. To date, only South Africa, Mauritius and Mozambique have succeeded in getting a third of decision-making posts placed in female hands.

The partisan feelings Dulani points to may, ironically, even have stood in the way of women helping advance gender balance in the government.

He says the decision by certain legislators to vote against the appointment of Mary Nangwale as inspector general of the Malawian police was simply a case of tit for tat: ”The women on the UDF side rejected her on the grounds that the government had dismissed women principal secretaries deemed sympathetic to the UDF.”

A notable exception to these trends, he added, was Information Minister Patricia Kaliyati, who has defended the government’s arrest of politicians implicated in corruption cases.

”But, beyond the level of individuals such as Kaliyati, women legislators have largely been silent as a group in the debate about corruption and impeachment,” Dulani said, adding that the Women Parliamentary Caucus — a grouping that promotes women’s interests in the legislature — has also been weakened by the party rivalry.

This claim puts the chairperson of the caucus, Lilian Patel (a UDF MP), on the defensive.

”The fact that we allow divergent views in the caucus does not mean we’re divided. This is a democracy and anyone, including MPs, has freedom of speech and association,” she says. — IPS