Ellen Kadango thrust into the periphery the traditional concept that politics is better practiced by men.
She held the bull by its horns in a society where, almost in every aspect of leadership, men have some natural advantage on their way to the top.
“I knew I would face the challenges that I faced,” Kadango conceded a few days ago. “But from them, I have grown politically. As such, from a single loss, that was inspired by culture and tradition, I cannot give up.”
Going to the polls as an independent candidate, the youthful aspirant starkly knew the bottlenecks on her way.
They included the infamous concept that ‘political’ women are loose and have little or no time for house chores and that women are frail and passive— not ideal to be authorised to lead.
“Perhaps, the most retrogressive and unfortunate thing is that I also faced opposition from my fellow women. Women don’t want women in leadership positions,” Kadango laments.
After the 2014 Tripartite Elections, when Joyce Banda’s two-year stint in power came to, perhaps, a little-expected end, there were those who thought her biggest challenge was convincing women, who opposed her suitability for the presidency, to vote for her.
That seems to be the case now.
But Kadango does not want that to douse her hopes of clinching a political position.
“Complaining a lot about problems may not really solve them. During my campaign, I tried to reach out even to organisations that were promoting the participation of women in politics. Most of them told me they often support candidates belonging to political parties,” she states.
This is, perhaps, one of the issues that have been less considered in the 50-50 fight.
The National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Public Trust, which is reinvigorating the campaign, admits that past initiatives to improve women participation in politics have failed largely because of their piecemeal approaches.
Indeed, cases of female aspirants claiming that they have not been given sufficient support by their own political parties, abound.
Women Caucus of Parliament Chairperson, Jessie Kabwila, hopes for a time women aspirants in political parties would be given the liberty to express themselves freely.
“Perhaps, the first thing is that we should understand the problems faced by female politicians who are in leadership positions, notably Members of Parliament (MP). We should concentrate on the current 32 MPs and understand what they went through and what they are experiencing now,” Kabwila says.
Like Kadango, she is worried that, apart from lack of support in their own political parties, female aspirants are also victims of smear campaigns aimed at denting their potential for political offices.
Kadango believes that if the issue of smear campaigns were formally addressed by stakeholders such as the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec), women’s struggles for political posts could be less challenging.
She says: “For instance, during the time I was doing campaign [for the 2017 by-elections] I was being harassed for simply being a woman. I wish Mec had a way of looking into such issues.”
Challenges that women face in their pursuit for political positions are, however, not dampening their hope ahead of the 2019 Tripartite Elections.
In some of the remotest areas of the country—where conventional messages in support of women participation in politics are just picking up—there are female aspirants who are being inspired to lead.
“I have always been willing to stand as Ward Councillor, even as ,MP, but the frustrations have been too many,” 28-year-old Linda Khamula of Kaigwazanga Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mulonyeni, in Mchinji District recounts.
Some people in her community plainly told her that they would not support her bid for political office because she is a woman.
Fortunately, some organisations are willing to promote the cause of women. For instance, in line with the National Gender Policy, which offers directions on women’s place in leadership positions, Nice Trust is undertaking activities that encourage women to participate in politics.
This is being done in collaboration with political parties, United Nations Women, the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Centre for Civil Society Strengthening and ActionAid Malawi Consortium, among others.
Nice Executive Director, Ollen Mwalubunju, is optimistic that, with awareness campaigns on the 50-50 battle, more women will not only come forward to compete in next year’s elections but also get the requisite support from voters.
“We are engaging political parties and other stakeholders so that, at nomination level, political parties themselves should show commitment to the 50-50 initiative,” Mwalubunju says.
He notes that an increase in nominations for women should be an important stepping stone towards their participation in politics.
“You cannot achieve the strategy until women are [serving] in positions at the very beginning. We should start with that,” he says.
Notes from Nice further indicate that the trust is in the process of formalising a working relationship with the Centre for Civil Society Strengthening and ActionAid Malawi to support and host women learning incubators in all the 30 Nice district resource centres.
Women candidates—including those who have never dreamt of taking up political positions—will be encouraged to go in that direction while others like college students will be lifted to use the hub to experiment their ideas on politics.
“Apart from providing workspace for women candidates, [the hubs] will also provide a platform for women/ young women to practice general communication and public speaking skills,” the notes read.
This, perhaps, will give women the much needed confidence, powering them past the stumbling block of stereotypes.