As Malawian MPs prepare for their national election next year, female parliamentarians face unique challenges. Catriona Matheson is visiting the country to provide media training for Malawi’s Women’s Caucus, and reports from the constituency of Dedza East.
When Malawian MP Juliana Lunguzi tours her constituency, she distributes newspapers from her car window to people at the side of the road. On the day I’m travelling with her, I ask if this is because her name, and face, are on the front page of one paper in an article calling on the Malawian government to step up efforts to tackle cholera. Juliana tells me she delivers the newspapers regardless, “like a travelling library” she laughs, and that it’s a cost she is willing to personally pay so her constituents have access to them.
Newspapers are not sold or delivered in these parts of Dedza East, her rural constituency south of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. “The papers don’t last long, as lots of people want them, or like to tear bits out”, she tells me. I ask how many people can read them. “Less than forty per cent of the communities are literate.” And therein lies one of the many challenges facing Malawi’s parliamentarians, as they campaign to hold on to their seats at next year’s national elections.
I’m in Malawi to hold media training workshops with female MPs. I’m with Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Hannah Bardell and we are here with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a cross-party body that facilitates relationships between UK political parties and political organisations around the world. Hannah and I are working with local media experts for the Women’s Caucus, the group of Malawi’s 32 female parliamentarians.
While there is much I can share with these women, the context of political campaigning is wildly different to my experiences on the campaign trail in Scotland, and my day job managing press for SNP MPs in Westminster.
Juliana is passionate about improving literacy. When I join her at a meeting with school teachers, she tells me it is one of the biggest issues affecting the advancement of girls in society. The staff we meet have been appointed to this school by the government, yet the infrastructure is nothing more than a couple of small huts built from mud bricks. One of the huts collapsed just two days previously – fortunately, no-one was hurt. Many children in Malawi still learn ‘under the tree’. This school should have over 600 pupils, but many don’t attend classes due to the lack of facilities.
We meet the school board in the open air, and sit across from them on plastic seats. They are a mix of teachers, and local fathers. This is an impoverished area and some of the men are barefoot. It’s impressive to see Juliana hold her own in front of the all-male panel.
“We can talk about child marriage,” the MP says to me afterwards, “but we need to start with classrooms. Families will keep their girls at home, to do domestic chores, and if they’re not in education they will remain illiterate and be more likely to get married younger.” In Malawi, it is not uncommon for girls to marry as young as 13.
When it comes to politics, illiteracy is also holding back the representation of women. Malawi’s parliament conducts all business in English yet many women, particularly from poorer backgrounds, speak only their local tongue, and they can’t write. I’m told by one MP that offering translators in parliament would be too costly.
Malawi’s parliament conducts all business in English yet many women, particularly from poorer backgrounds, speak only their local tongue, and they can’t write. I’m told by one MP that offering translators in parliament would be too costly.
Another major factor holding women back in public life is a lack of finance. Women tend to be poorer, and the Malawian MPs told me that fundraising publicly was not an option. One MP said they would be condemned in the media, and by constituents, if they asked publicly for money – which is in stark contrast to the political campaigns in the UK and elsewhere, which rely heavily on public donations and fundraising events.
MPs here are also expected to spend their own money in their constituencies. When campaigning for her seat, one MP said she heard her political rival was planning to buy an ambulance for the local community, so she quickly bought one first, and she believes this helped secure her seat in parliament.
While visiting her constituency, Juliana tells me she had to be honest with her constituents, that she couldn’t freely give away money. She believes she was elected based on the good reputation of her late father, who was a local police chief. When we visit the family home, there is a large shrine to him in the village. Juliana said the exception of using her own money was distributing newspapers, and giving one-off tips; when we met with the school board, we were three hours late, which she said was rude even by Malawi’s laid-back standards, and so she gave a small offering as an apology.
When it comes to the representation of women in parliament in Malawi, progress has been made. Malawi has had a female president in Joyce Banda, and on our visit to Malawi’s parliament, it is the female First Deputy Speaker, Esther Mcheka-Chilenje, who is sitting in the Speaker’s Chair.
Juliana is a formidable character, and just four years in to her political career, she has gained a reputation as an ambitious and outspoken woman. A former nurse and midwife, she became a midwifery specialist for the UN Population Fund, providing support for the Sudanese government. She says Malawi’s problems are blamed on politicians, and she decided to stand for election to see if she could do something to improve the country. While recognising the benefits of grants and donations from overseas, she believes that Malawi needs to improve its own gross per capita with sustainable industries and an educated workforce.
When it comes to the representation of women in parliament in Malawi, progress has been made. Malawi has had a female president in Joyce Banda, and on our visit to Malawi’s parliament, it is the female First Deputy Speaker, Esther Mcheka-Chilenje, who is sitting in the Speaker’s Chair. She too believes education is a key factor in creating equality but she is also hopeful and believes the situation is improving. “Even in my time in parliament, things are better for women,” she tells me. “We are scrutinised more than men, and it is more difficult for us to get elected, but things are finally moving in the right direction.”
This is a point Juliana concedes. Despite dealing mostly with men when visiting her constituency, she tells me there has been an acceptance of her as a female parliamentarian. She adds, “I’m a leader, besides being a woman. You need to be tough, and it’s a fight, but it’s a process woman can now go through.”
Catriona Matheson is Head of Communications for the SNP in Westminster. She has previously worked for the European Parliament in Brussels and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. A graduate of the University of Glasgow and University of Sydney, Australia, she currently lives in London. You can find Catriona on Twitter @_cmatheson
Feature image: Malawi Electoral Commission.