When the Malawi Electoral Commission announced in September that it would be lowering nomination fees for female candidates running in the upcoming by-election, the move was touted as a way to encourage women’s participation in politics.
Just as it had done ahead of the general elections in 2014, the commission dropped the registration fee for women candidates to 150,000 Malawian kwacha ($200), 25 percent less than the fee for men. “The commission has always been eager to implement ideas that can promote women’s participation in elections as candidates,” media and public relations director Sangwani Mwafulirwa said.
In the October 17 by-election, which covers three local council seats and three parliamentary seats, 19 candidates are running, including four women. They are vying for five seats left vacant after their representatives died, and one parliamentary seat where the Supreme Court ordered a re-run of the 2014 election.
Ellen Kadango is one of the women running for office. A 28-year-old independent, first-time candidate Kadango says she welcomed the decision to lower nomination fees for women and sees it as a positive sign of the country’s support for women in power.
“Initially, I did not even know that there was a nomination fee and was really excited when I found out that as a female candidate my fee would be slightly lower. It made me realize that people in Malawi are working on empowering women, which is encouraging,” she says.
“Most women are scared of running for election, and this will make it easier for them to do so.”
But women’s rights advocates say that the issues holding women back in Malawian politics go deeper than candidate fees. They point to the fact that while the reduced fee helped more women get onto the ballot in the last general election, the number who made it to parliament actually dropped. After the 2014 vote, with the lower fee in place, the number of female MPs in Malawi went from 42 to 30.
“Many factors have been attributed to this drop, such as the patriarchal culture which disadvantages women, lack of resources, violence and intimidation,” Mwafulirwa says. Researchers Ngeyi Ruth Kanyongolo and Bernadette Malunga found “instances of electoral malpractices and misconduct such as intimidation, harassment, voter card buying, abuse of public resources and campaign violence,” in the 2014 election.
“There is a widespread view that politics is ‘dirty’ (where abusive language and violence are norms) and this discourages some women from contesting and participating in active politics,” they wrote.
A report released in 2016 by the Overseas Development Institute shows the proportion of women MPs in Malawi grew steadily since the first multiparty elections in 1994, “reaching a peak of 21.8 percent in 2009, when Malawi also elected its first woman vice president, Joyce Banda.” Banda went on to become the country’s first woman president in 2012, following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.
But progress stopped with Malawi’s tripartite election in 2014, when Banda came third in the race and the proportion of women MPs fell to 16.6 percent. Banda had been badly damaged by the “Cashgate” corruption scandal in 2013, and several people interviewed by the Overseas Development Institute said this affected women’s chances in the subsequent election. “Banda’s actions were seen as representative of her sex rather than her or her party’s political interests, in a manner that would not be the case for man,” the report found.
Sitting politicians say the fee reduction could end up having an unintended negative impact on women candidates.
“It is good to lower fees so that women who may not be able to afford [the full fees] are able to run for election. On the other hand, lowering fees to favor women may produce some negative gender connotations – people may not take women candidates seriously,” says Esther Mcheka-Chilenje, the first deputy speaker of Parliament.
“People will not take us on merit and will say women are running for elections because it is cheap for them to do so.”
Mcheka-Chilenje says there are several other problems ingrained within Malawi’s electoral process that are more off-putting to women than high nomination fees. For example, she says, the first-past-the-post voting system – where the candidate with the most votes wins no matter how small the margin – makes it hard for women to win seats as it pits them against male candidates who have more resources. She says women-only seats would be a more progressive measure to take.
“Campaigns require a lot of financial resources and as a woman it is not easy to raise such financial resources,” Mcheka-Chilenje says. “Competing on the same level has never been easy.”
Despite the challenges, Mcheka-Chilenje encourages women to continuing vying for government roles, to keep female voices alive in the decision-making process.
“Once you are elected, it will give you a better platform to represent your people,” she says. “It is possible for a woman to succeed in an election; it is just a question of being bold and focusing on your agenda.”