By Chris Crowstaff. May 2011.
Malawi is a small, landlocked country in southern Africa, neighboured by Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania.
It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most of its 11 million people live in rural areas, where population density is high and water-related diseases and HIV/AIDS are widespread.
Nearly half the population is under 15 years old and many are orphans.
Women in Malawi have experienced great challenges in gaining access to political and leadership positions. Since Malawi attained democracy in 1994, it has achieved some gains in women’s participation the political domain, particularly an increase in women’s parliamentary representation.
However, the country compares poorly with many of its African neighbours, in terms of development of gender equality. Patrimonial rhetoric remains prevalent and constrains Malawian women who seek to engage in political and governance spheres. Spaces for women to participate and make their voices heard are very limited.
There are numerous rural villages in Malawi, in which most homes rely on paraffin lamps as their primary source of light. Not only is paraffin more expensive than electricity, it also presents various health hazards such as air pollution and lung cancer, as well as run-away fires which destroy entire villages.
Up to 27 percent of Malawi’s women have never attended school compared to only 16 percent of males, according to Malawi’s 2008 population and housing census.
The United Nations says health indicators continue to be worse for women. The country’s maternal mortality rate is at 807 deaths per 100,000 births -- among the worst in Africa.
Malawian women have a long history of forming and participating in organisations such as saving-clubs, church groups, entrepreneurial clubs, arts and crafts groups and the like. They are eager to engage in public life and improve their prospects for political inclusion.
Many of these groups are working with Government to overcome common challenges Malawian women face, including the inheritance of property after the death of a husband, domestic violence, poor access to education and the lack of political spaces to make their voices heard.
President Bingu wa Mutharika moved the local election date to April this year. However, he has since fired the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) saying an audit of the Commission showed it was unable to account for millions of dollars meant for the 2011 elections.
The local elections have now been postponed until 2014.
This is a huge blow to the work being done by the Malawi Women’s Lobby which has been training aspiring women candidates for the local elections over the past two years.
One aspect of this project which has had a big impact has been the Women’s Listeners Clubs – groups of village women who come together to listen to radio programmes, learn and debate topical issues and who have been instrumental in encouraging and identifying women in their communities to take up leadership positions. Over the past six months these women candidates have been supported and have campaigned through door to door campaigns, at public forms like funerals and weddings, antenatal clinics and under five clinics at maize mills, as well as in group meetings in churches.
This is not the first time local elections have been postponed since the current President Bingu wa Mutharika was elected into office for a second term in 2009.
Malawi has not held local elections since 2000. Yet Malawi’s Constitution stipulates, under Section 147 sub section 5, that local government elections shall take place in the third week of May in the year following general elections. General elections were held in May 2009 and as such, the local elections were due in May 2010.
Withdrawal of aid
Malawi has recently lost aid from Britain and Germany after expressing concerns about poor governance in the country.
This decision, according to the Nyasa Times, was taken because of President Bingu wa Mutharika's dictatorial rule.
According to the Times, President Mutharika accused some donors of working with civil society to undermine his administration.
Mutharika deported British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet in February 2011 for calling him "autocratic" and "combative".
Mutharika is also on record as saying that some donors are working with civil society to undermine his administration.
Britain froze new aid until a review of its ties with the country after mutual expulsion of diplomats, the Malawi Voice reports.
A statement released by the Department of International Development (DFID), a British aid arm, said the UK is reviewing its relations with Malawi, including DFID's aid programme. New aid commitments are on hold until the review is completed.
Nyasa Times also reported that the German enbassy will close its mission in Malawi in the next 12 months.
The country is heavily reliant on donors, with budgetary support accounting for more than 40 percent of the national budget, the Malawi Voice has reported.
However, donors are concerned with violations of freedom of the press and expression, lack of accountability and human rights abuse, according to reports.
There is some hope that Malawian women’s needs will be incorporated in the MGDS II. Government, through the Ministry of Development Planning and Cooperation has, since last September, been carrying out nationwide consultations on what the blueprint should contain and prioritise.
Many NGOs, including the NGO Coalition on Child Rights -- a network of seven strong local non-governmental organisations – are, among other issues, lobbying for more schools and the improvement of sanitary facilities so that more girls stay in schools.
The Minister of Development Planning and Cooperation has since assured the country, through the local press, that money to implement the MGDS II will be allocated in the 2011/2012 national budget to be released in June 2011.