Do women stand a chance in Malawi's tripartite elections?

Malawians will vote in Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Elections in a few days time. Figures released by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) show that 55 out of the every 100 voters in the Southern African country’s May 21 Tripartite Elections will be women. In fact, in some areas such as the lake shore district of Mangochi, the number of women registered to vote far outweighs that of men as they comprise nearly 62 out of every 100 registered voters. Malawi 2018 Census figures that show that 51 percent of Malawians are women.

The figures make women an important constituent of the electoral and governance process, although women remain at the peripheral even globally In terms of partaking of what is on the table; women also remain grossly underrepresented in positions of influence including in the political sphere, prompting gender equality proponents to agitate for women’s inclusion.

  • Female representatives often hold different perspectives on women’s issues and that they are more likely to prioritise women’s rights and to view themselves as champions of women,” notes Lewis Dzimbiri in his chapter “The 50-50 Balance: Myth or Reality” in the book Women in Politics in Malawi.

Low levels of women’s representation also means, “Women are not sufficiently made use of as agents of change for the benefit of the country and for the benefit of women. The exclusion of women, through limited representation in politics, also contributes to the marginalisation of women’s needs,” argues Wezi Malonda in the same book.

Yet, the supreme law of the land, the Malawi constitution in Section 13 promotes the full participation of women in all spheres of Malawian society on the basis of equality with men. Malawi is also a signatory of a number of global, continental and regional protocols that promulgate the idea of women’s equal opportunities in political and public life, among them the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights (popularly called also known as Maputo Protocol) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development which set the 50-50 gender target at its 2005 Heads of State Summit and ratified it in 2008.

Historical perspective

Malawian women began to be increasingly involved in politics in the 1950s, as the country like most others on the continent pushed for deconolisation. Malawi’s first female cabinet minister Rose Chibambo recalled in interviews that before they began to be involved, the male folk dominated political discourse.

“… I asked myself why women did not attend such meetings…I set to organise my fellow women, that’s how the Women’s League was born,” she recalled.

Member of the women’s league would later be used mostly to entertain at functions through dancing. Happy Kayuni and Inge Amundsen note in their introduction to the book Women in Politics in Malawi, in which are drawn most of the arguments in this article, that although Malawi’s first President Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda christened himself the women’s ‘nkhoswe’ (advocate) his actions said otherwise.

"The first cabinet after independence in 1964 included one female, and women political participation at the national and local levels remained extremely low throughout his reign.

​"​For instance, between 1964 and 1996, only two women were appointed cabinet ministers and only three per cent of the parliamentarians were women,” they argue.

But in 1993, Malawians through a referendum chose to readmit democracy after voting for an end to Kamuzu’s 30-year dictatorial reign, which must never be forgotten. The following year in Parliamentary and Presidential Elections 10 (representing 5.5 percent of the seats) female candidates from seven out of the country’s 26 districts won Parliamentary seats to serve for the next five years. The figures kept on rising by an average 5% per five-year election cycle and peaked in 2009-2014 when the number of women increased from 24 to 43.

By 2009 Malawi had started mounting what has been dubbed the 50-50 campaign-an attempt to usher more women into Parliament initially; and since the introduction of Tripartite Elections in 2014, into local government positions.

Following two previous efforts deemed disjointed, although the initial one in 2009 one was a bit of a success as the country saw an increase in the number of women parliamentarians from 27 to 44 out of 193; the next in 2014 was a bit disastrous as the numbers dropped from 44 to 33 (17%).

The reasons attributed to the flop of 2014 were many, they included barriers created by culture with Malawi being a patriarchal society; the economy and those created by political structures.

 “The lack of financial resources affects women’s political candidacy… in order for women to contest in a parliamentary election, there is need for funds for campaign materials... Women do not always have the financial resources to make their campaigns vibrant.

"One political barrier is the fact that the political parties are presenting few female candidates for election. The number of women candidates and the number of women elected are directly correlated; and the parties are presenting less than 20 per cent women candidates,” argues Wezi Mesikano, a female lawyer.

There was also what others termed the ‘Joyce Banda effect’.

Fresh start? 

This election cycle, however, Malawi’s Ministry of Gender mounted what they described as a more coherent undertaking through the 50-50 Campaign Management Agency largely with funding from the Norwegians. But what were the results? I highlight some of them with particular focus on Parliament.

  •  There has been an increase in the number of women seeking Parliamentary seats from 268 in the 2014 to 304 this year with 37.5% (114) of them contesting as independent candidates. Women therefore represent about 23% of the 1,333 contestants in 2019 compared about 20% in 2014.

Nine out of 33 (27%) constituencies in the North, 16 out of 73 (21%) in the Centre and 17 out of 87 (19.5%) in South have no female candidates. Thus 42 constituencies will not be presented by a woman compared to 44 in the 2014 elections.

Constituencies with no females
Constituencies with no female Parliamentary candidates

Districts least represented by women 

  • In Chiradzulu and Salima, three out of five of each of the districts’ constituencies have no female representatives. Women, from the figures, shied away from contesting in constituencies where there are ‘strong incumbent males’ or where the competition is stiff. Examples include Mulanje Central of Kondwani Nankhumwa a Democratic Progressive Party stalwart, Lilongwe Mpenu where Malawi Congress Party secretary general Eisenhower Mkaka is contesting, Chiradzulu East of Henry Mussa, Salima South of Uladi Mussa

Ntcheu-Four out of eight constituents will not have a female representative and Chitipa 2/5.  

Districts least represented by women
Where fewer women contested

Star performers

Ntchisi, Neno, Nsanje and Mwanza are the only districts with female candidates in each of their constituencies four, five, two and two constituencies, respectively.

 In some constituencies such as Nkhotakota South (Democratic Progressive Party Secretary General Grezelder is the incumbent), Dowa Central (Jean Kalilani is a serving cabinet minister), Lilongwe City Centre (the incumbent will not be contesting there), women outnumber men. In a few others, the number of female representatives is equal to that of men or there are a significant number of female candidates.

For example in Balaka West of Patricia Shanil Dzimbiri, former first lady and UTM founding member; Dedza East of MCP’s Juliana Lunguzi and Lilongwe City West where Callista Mutharika is standing, the number of female contestants equal that of men. It is clear that while women shied away from contesting against ‘strong men’ they did not do so against ‘strong women’.

Women in politics
The star perfomers

Role of political parties

  • Despite being assured of support in some areas, considered their strongholds, political parties were still not likely to feature women. MCP in their stronghold of the Central Region have featured 10 women out of 73 possible seats, but 16 in the South where ideally their chances of winning are slim; the same can be said of the DPP 23 in the Centre and 20 in the South. In the North, where the MCP has traditionally performed poorly, the party has literally only featured two women, DPP has seven with UTM featuring the most female parliamentary candidates in the North.
  • MCP has only featured two female candidates in the North (Mzimba Luwerezi and Mzimba North East, DPP has seven). So, where the parties are already strong they are more likely to feature men, where they also think the competition will be stiff, they feature men.
  • Others have observed that when women are in positions of power, they are more likely to champion for women’s representation. In the Southern Region district of Mulanje where UTM’s Secretary General Patricia Kaliati hails from, the party has five female representatives out of nine constituencies and in the lakeshore district of Nkhotakota of the DPP’s Secretary General the ruling party has three women out of five constituencies
  • The most independents were recorded in the urban centre, with Lilongwe City Centre leading the pack, featuring six independent women candidates.
    Women on political party tickets
    Women were sidelined by political parties


But why did the women shy away from contesting against strong men but eagerly tussled against seemingly stronger women. Why did political parties field more female candidates in areas where they are seemingly weaker? Why did certain regions have less women candidates than others. I sought some explanations from head of the 50-50 Campaign Management Agency Viwemi Chavula who have been on the ground….his responses form my next story.