Gillian Cooper investigates one partner’s decade-long effort to secure greater female representation in decision-making in Malawi.

Emma Kaliya is Board Member of Gender Links, Chairperson of FEMNET, and the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance in Malawi and a women’s rights activist of many, many years. We had the pleasure of speaking to Emma Kaliya about her life’s work and her role in the Gender Links project Making the Post-2015 agenda work for gender equality in Southern Africa, which is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation.

I was struck by the continuous challenges and her unwavering dedication, over more than a decade, to increase the numbers of women in political decision-making roles. Emma’s story highlighted the highs and lows and continuous struggle that gender equality advocacy requires the world over. I was pleased to learn that the global ‘50-50 campaign’ had started in Malawi as a national, grassroots campaign.

Back in 2008, after many years of lobbying and negotiations by the Southern Africa women’s movement, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development was adopted by Heads of States and Government. Civil society alongside Ministries of Gender/Women affairs had fought long and hard to get SADC leaders to agree to the Protocol – transforming a non-binding Declaration into a more robust Protocol agreement.

Civil society fought to include the protocol target that at least 50 per cent of decision-making positions in the public and private sectors are held by women.  (Since the Protocol’s revision in 2016/17, this target has been revised to be met by 2030).

‘Emma’s story highlighted the highs and lows and continuous struggle that gender equality advocacy requires the world over.’

Adoption of the Protocol was a significant achievement, but civil society recognised that the Protocol’s adoption was just one step in a long journey to implementation. In Emma’s words: ‘We were not going to sit quietly! We know there are tricks!’ Pushing for implementation required tracking progress, and this would be done using the SADC Gender Barometer.

An important first step in the introduction of the Barometer was to popularise it and to show its usefulness to improving gender equality. Fortuitously, Malawi’s elections closely followed the Protocol’s adoption in 2009; Malawi had not yet ratified the Protocol. So in the run up to elections, Emma and other civil society actors used this opportunity to translate the target of 50-50 female representation in political decision-making into action.  The ‘50-50 campaign’ was born.

The campaign was able to gain momentum and really took root with Malawians.  Mini-buses and roadside rest houses painted with the 50-50 campaign slogans are still visible today. While we chatted, Emma challenged us: ‘Ask anyone what 50-50 is and they will tell you.’ And so I asked a couple taxi drivers and the receptionist at our Lilongwe hotel – both male and female – if they knew about the 50-50 campaign. Though not a representative sample, of course –each was able to tell me that it was about increasing numbers of women in politics.

Late Bingu wa Mutharika, the President at the time, was eager to demonstrate that Malawi would make progress on its regional and international commitments to increase the numbers of women in decision-making spaces. And Emma was given a number of platforms to present the movement’s agenda. She was clear: ‘We have come for one agenda. Women want to be in Parliament and local councils.’ Sure enough, in that year, the President provided small but significant funding for the campaigns in each constituency where there was a female candidate. The campaign paid off. At the time, Malawi had the highest number of female candidates it had ever had and 43 seats out of 193 seats were eventually won by women.

‘Mini-buses and roadside rest houses painted with the 50-50 campaign slogans are still visible today.’

Three years later Malawi got its first female President. Previously Vice-President, she took office following the sudden death of Mutharika. Expecting to build on the progress over the last few years, instead the 50-50 campaign faced some of its biggest challenges in the 2014 election cycle.

Those unhappy with her leadership promoted a campaign in the 2014 elections to discriminate against all women in political office. The campaign against women leaders saw the number of women representatives drop from 22% to 17%. ‘We were really let down…I never expected it’; Emma’s body language showed the toll the discriminatory campaign had.

In 2017, Emma was one of the Commissioners on the Special Law Commission on the Review of Electoral Laws in Malawi. One of the recommendations of the Commission was the institution of a quota for women in each of the 28 electoral districts. Such a quota system would open up a seat in each district, guaranteeing 28 seats for women, but would not challenge seats in existing constituencies where women would still be eligible to stand.

While President Peter Mutharika was supportive when he made a statement at an EU-Brussels meeting, his Cabinet decided to reject the recommendation for the ‘28 seat initiative’, siting technical implementation challenges once adopted. Emma was understandably frustrated.

Malawians go to the polls in 2019, and campaigners have been told that the 28-seat-initiative will not be considered. However, the 50-50 campaign lives on and is gearing up again.

Gillian Cooper is Programme Manager for Knowledge, Learning and Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation.

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