BY RICHARD CHIROMBO
The Mwanza woman’s experience is one of a survivor who has never flourished.
It is one painful realization to have come home to gender activists in
the district, prompting them to ask the tough, immoral question:
Should we bank our hopes on disaster, and reap from the cup of
National disasters have done it elsewhere in Africa- call it the
unintended benefit of a bad experience- and tilted life in favour of
the long-suppressed woman. In Rwanda, for instance, the death of more
men than women in that country’s darkest period of civil war opened a
plethora of opportunity for women that others turned to the roads,
truck driving; many more chose the mechanical and electric engineering
path, among others- tasks hither to reserved for men.
For Emma Kaliya, chairperson for NGO-Gender Support Network (NGO-GCN),
Malawi needs more of ink and paper (with which to formulate requisite
gender empowerment policies and protocols) than the smoking gun or
astray arrow to win the woman’s right place in society.
“Implementation of gender policies holds the key to Malawi’s success,
along with the realization that men have an equal role to play. Gender
is about both men and women,” says Kaliya.
It may be slow, and painful at times, but the destination is clear,
she says. This slow pace down the women empowerment mile is clear in a
Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol 2010
Barometer for Malawi, compiled by Kaliya herself through the Malawi
Human Rights Resource Centre.
SADC set aside 28 targets- among them, constitutional and legal
rights; economic empowerment; governance, in terms of both
representation and participation; education and training; Gender-based
violence; peace building; health, HIV and AIDS; media, Information,
Communication and Technology- to be met by 2015.
So far, Malawi has sent out mixed signals. The country scored 57 per
cent in this year’s SADC Gender Protocol Barometer, points slightly
higher than the regional average of 54 per cent.
The good part is that the country has been lauded by the regional body
for coming closer to meeting education and training targets. A score
of eight out of 10 is a mark too high for other SADC member states; a
feat repeated in the target area of governance, where Malawi’s
performance in improving women’s roles in political processes is
matched by a handful other countries.
But that is all there is to Malawi’s walk towards women empowerment as
the country remains far much behind in meeting targets for increased
productive resources, employment and economic empowerment. Scores
ranging from two to six are a smack in gender activists’ faces.
“We need to renew our commitment,” she adds.
But gender activism does not end at putting in place strategic
policies, and renewing commitment. It means much more than that, chips
in Loyce Kachepa, Mwanza District Coordinator for Women’s Legal
Resources Centre (WOLREC).
The path of WOLREC’s efforts in Mwanza- and such districts as Salima,
Zomba, Neno, Mangochi, Mzuzu and Balaka- is always strewn with
Malawi’s other common challenges: high poverty levels, estimated by
the SADC Barometer at 65.3 per cent of the 13 million-plus population;
a less impressive adult literacy rate of 62 per cent, with fewer women
than men able to read; impoverished female-headed households, where 34
per cent of households are female-headed.
Experience has shown that female-headed households tend to be poorer
due to gender disparities in education, resources and access to
opportunities, points buttressed by the 2006 HIV.VAW Survey Report.
“We must look beyond mere activism and inculcate the spirit of a
rights-based approach to development. After all, Section 30 of the
Malawi Constitution makes it clear that everyone, including women, is
entitled to development. It is high time people started demanding
development, instead of being over-grateful when public officials due
their rightful role: bringing social-economic development,” says
A rights-based approach is the sure way women could begin to view such
efforts as the 50:50 Women Empowerment campaign as repayment of a
public debt policymakers have defaulted on for many years, she adds.
“Women deserve to be in decision-making positions; it is not something
up for discussion, it is a right.”
It is this kind of boldness that forces Maggie Sundu, Gender Desk
Officer at the Association for Progressive Women (APW) in Mwanza, to
declare that (in the spirit of the 50:50 campaign) there is but only
one ‘political party’ in Malawi.
“And such a political party is the woman; the Malawian woman.”
Sundu says this is the reason NGOs have been campaigning for the
woman’s vote in either Presidential, Parliamentary and Local
Government elections. The Democratic Progressive Party, United
Democratic Front, Malawi Forum for Unity and Development, People’s
Transformation Party, Malawi Congress Party, Malawi Democratic Union,
Malawi Democratic Party may be there in the wards and constituencies,
yes; but when there is a lonely woman fighting for a political slot,
the woman is the political party.
This is a point that has pitted gender activist against gender
insensitive political parties.
Noel Msiska, acting executive director for APW remembers going to
Rumphi in the Northern region prior to the 2009 Parliamentary
“One political party sent emissaries to ask us the question: ‘which
political party is this?’. We said we were fighting for the promotion
of women, but members of most political parties got none of it. The
Malawian woman deserves better,” says Msiska.
Of all the places in Malawi, Mwanza district qualifies for one that
has kept the woman in the kitchen much longer than necessary. While
the country has been moving slowly, but upwardly, towards empowering
the local woman (in the 1994 General Elections, 10 women Members of
Parliament made it to the August House; in 1999, 18 women; 2004, 26;
and 2009, 42 women), Mwanza is yet to have a female councilor.
Yet, during the 2000 Local Government Elections, the Southern (where
Mwanza is) and Central region scored higher (at 30 per cent women
representation) and the Northern region lower, at 10 per cent, the
Mwanza woman was totally counted out.
Phillip Mponda Banda, District Community Development Officer- a
position falling under the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community
Development- has a clear picture of the problem.
The Mwanza man, says Mponda Banda, has so many ways of building
self-confidence, esteem and asserting himself in the largely male
Take, for instance, the bicycle he uses to ferry charcoal or people at
Mwanza Central District. When he uses the bicycle to eke a living, he
has so many people (the passenger) to talk to, and this builds his
Other men take to Bawo, where politics, social and economic talk
dominates discourse. At the football pitch, it is not only goals he
talks of; he often indulges in political and general leadership
During political campaigns, in church meetings: the Mwanza man plays
the leading role.
“All the time, the woman is in the kitchen, or in the garden
performing back-breaking manual work. All she thinks of is feeding her
family, taking care of the children, and obeying the husband-
especially for those married under dowry customs. All this has left
women behind, and has not been good for Mwanza,” says Mponda Banda.
Mponda Banda still hopes for the better, however. He takes comfort
from the Millennium Development Goals, Malawi Growth and Development
Strategy and National Gender Policy- all of which encourage women
He also hopes that, one day, Mwanza Central and Mwanza West (the
district’s only constituencies) will have women at the top. However,
Mponda Banda urges people not to confuse gender activism with
feminism, saying gender activism is all about women and men working
alongside each other.
“In other words, it means that where there is a man, a woman should
be. This can be achieved by analyzing the needs of people involved,
and channeling more resources towards the disadvantaged (equity).”
But there is a danger for Malawi; the country only has ONE chance to
meet the SADC 2015 Gender Protocol targets: With the Local Government Elections that were slated for 2011 now postponed to 2014, there is only the 2014 presidential and Parliamentary Elections to look up to.
It is Malawi’s most challenging governance test.