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Local politics meet gender politics in Malawi's municipal elections

Beauty Pillow Local govt election aspirant Dec 2010 002
Beauty Pillow is the only woman running for local council in her constituency. Though it'll be a tough battle, she says she has an advantage because she's committed to community development. 
Photo by Philippa Croome

By Philippa Croome

Beauty Pillow is a rare woman in Malawi—she can afford to run for office.

“I don’t have any donors but I use the little my husband sends from South Africa and from my own business—selling chitenjes (traditional garments), rice and sometimes beans,” Pillow says.

Aspiring for local government is no easy task. Beyond campaigning costs and time spent, Pillow says a major challenge will still be to win her party’s favour and make it through the primaries next year. She’ll be running against four other candidates in her area: all men, and, like her, representing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But she knows she’s got a leg up.

“My fellow aspirants, they say, ‘We will do [community development] in the future, after we have been elected, but as of now, we can’t do anything, we don’t have money.’ So I am the only candidate that is already doing development,” she says. “I buy uniforms for football and netball to keep the youth busy, I buy coffins for those who cannot afford one.”

It’s an economic advantage that women in Malawi don’t often see. A report from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development released last year says men typically earn double the income of women in Malawi, from informal and agricultural household enterprises on up. Men also have more access to credit and spend less time consumed by domestic duties, such as gathering water.

The report also says that when the country last had local councillors in 2004, there were 767 male ward councillors to 76 female.

Despite the touted 50/50 campaign that was praised for raising female representation in Parliament from 14 to 22 per cent in the 2009 general elections, local election disputes have gotten in the way of raising the gender platform at the lower echelons of government.

The campaign was recently taken over by the Ministry of Gender from local NGOs—what’s been called a surprising move in the face of their past success at the federal level. Civil society is worried the ministry’s interests are too aligned with those of the governing party, and will see their candidates take precedence over the interests of women overall.

What’s more, with the recent suspension of the Electoral Commission on fraud charges, the setting isn’t exactly ripe for tackling social inequities.

The money that's supposed to be reaching female candidates in order to level out the playing field simply isn’t, and it’s threatening to widen the gap.

“We have just heard that we’ll be told [about campaign support] later on. They have said they are waiting for funds,” says Pillow.

Pillow looks on as members of her community surround a new borehole being drilled in her home village of Sigerege, on the outskirts of Malawi’s commercial hub Blantyre. She smiles as the water sprays up suddenly, over children cheering and playing in its mist.

After months of campaigning Blantyre District Council members, Pillow says this borehole is now the fourth she has brought to the area on her own initiative and sheer persistence.

“I think they just wanted to get rid of me,” she laughs. “But I know how important water is, water is life.”

Women’s representation at the local level is tenuous with the polls only three months away. Though parties are gearing up for primaries, the three major ones have all expressed a disappointing lack of female participation. Cultural prejudices have even meant threats and intimidation for some of the women in the race.

Unless government gets the intended funding into the hands of women like Pillow, their potential will be stunted before it has a chance to start, and Malawi’s desperately overdue local representatives won’t be representative at all.

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