/ 17 May 2009

Record number of women contest Malawi elections

At 65, Helen Singh is enjoying the fruits of running a successful car hire firm from her small office in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital.

”Yes, I am a rich woman, but my heart is in Parliament,” she told Agence France-Presse, in between serving a tourist client.

”The need to help end endemic poverty in my home village moved me to run for this office,” said Singh, who is running as an independent candidate in her home constituency.

”The poverty levels everywhere in Malawi are so distressing after 45 years of independence. We have to do something,” she added.

A record 220 women are running in Malawi’s presidential and parliamentary polls on Tuesday, representing about 20% of all candidates for the 193 seats.

Women are also at the top of the ticket for the first time: Loveness Gondwe is Malawi’s first female presidential candidate, incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika has tapped foreign minister Joyce Banda as his running mate.

The outgoing Parliament included 27 female lawmakers, but the ministry of women and child development has launched a donor-backed scheme to encourage more female candidates with the goal of women winning half the seats, a plan they call the 50:50 campaign.

”Women in Malawi … have been given very little room to participate in decision-making positions,” Maxwell Matewere, a leader of the campaign, told AFP.

Under the programme, the candidates were drilled in campaign tactics and given seed money of about $800 each.

”The ministry is looking forward to a new Parliament with at least 96 women in Parliament,” Anna Kachikho, Women and Child Development Minister, told AFP.

Kachikho, herself a lawmaker, said the pick of Joyce Banda as a vice-presidential candidate had ”inspired women’s spirits” in this male-dominated society.

The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a rights group which has run a series of workshops to coach the candidates, said a lack of confidence and campaign skills were obstacles to women entering Parliament.

”The government through the ministry wants to increase the participation of women in leadership,” said Joseph Kazima, gender and development officer in the ministry.

”This will lead to the advancement and empowerment of women,” he added.

Gondwe’s presidential bid is seen as a long-shot in a race dominated by political heavyweights, but says she represents the change Malawi needs to overcome poverty.

”It is time for change. Malawians are being taken for a ride,” she said. ”Leaders are abusing resources meant for the poor.”

”As a woman, I will make a difference to help the poor, workers and those who have been betrayed by our male rulers in the past,” said Gondwe, leader of the small National Rainbow Coalition.

But the 50:50 campaign has attracted critics who say that gender is not the most important issue in Malawi’s politics.

”It’s a tactical mistake to focus on women. There is no women’s vote. You cannot win because you are a woman. You should win on your abilities,” said Fidelis Kanyongolo, a law lecturer at the University of Malawi.

Even Singh is critical of the campaign, saying: ”You don’t need preferential treatment as a woman to be successful in life.”

”Don’t give me things because I am a woman … that’s degrading.

I want to achieve and accomplish things by own effort.” — Sapa-AFP