With Jenna Cocullo:
The peaceful women’s march that took place in Lilongwe recently is the perfect example of why Malawians need to do their best to reach their 50:50 campaign goals in the upcoming election and rid parties of problematic men who perpetrate sexist ideology.
Hundreds of women, including political leaders and civil society organisations, took to the streets to denounce violence against women after a woman in Mangochi was allegedly stripped naked by suspected members of the ruling DPP for wearing clothes of a rival political.
This was political violence against women: Violence against women in politics means legislative obstructions or physical and psychological acts that contribute to the violation of women’s rights to participate equally in society, the economy, and politics. The way those women were treated by those party members was harmful and hindered their right to freely participate in society as they saw fit.
“Just because women choose to participate in politics does not mean we are promiscuous and our rights should be respected,” said Jessie Kabwila, chairperson of the women caucus in Parliament, when commenting on the incident.
She also warned that if women continue to be treated this way, women’s representation in politics will slowly wane, leaving the 50:50 campaign a failure. As of 2015, Malawi only had 16% of women represented in politics.
But we cannot let incidents like these deter women from participating in politics. In fact, this moment needs to become a wake-up call that encourages more women to run and elect one another in the upcoming elections. Only women can make the necessary cultural, social, and political changes to bring about true gender equality in this country.
The women’s march was aimed at bringing attention to the problem of political violence against women but the time for talking about a problem, and raising awareness for it is over. Now it is time for action.
We are in an era where it is time for these problems to be addressed head-on, with intentional action and proposed changes aimed at breaking down the barriers, power dynamics and policies currently holding women back.
Emerging countries that have a higher representation of women parliamentarians are more likely to pass comprehensive laws on sexual harassment, rape, divorce, and domestic violence. An investment in women politicians is an investment in culture and therefore; an investment in gender equality and the decline of sexual harassment.
Long-term culture change is needed to shift the toxic behaviour and sexist discourse undermining women’s political credibility and empowerment. We also need accountable processes and procedures in place to ensure that women are no longer subject to treatment that left them feeling alone or shamed – such as the treatment we saw of the Mangochi woman.
These issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Why? Well just look at Rwanda; as soon as women took a 64% control in the high levels of Parliament, women leaders at the rural level increased along with access to education for young girls and a decline in child marriage. When we achieve political equality for women, we can more realistically achieve gender equality across all aspects of our society.
Politics has been a man’s world with the rules made by men for men. Rules where they think it is okay to publicly strip and humiliate women for their attire. But a strong commitment to the 50:50 campaign might just change the rules of those games.