Updated: Feb 13
Youth in politics have been marginalized for as long as post-independence self-rule has existed in Malawi. The look of our political landscape is rather grey and wrinkly, and frequently has led to bad decisions on development and people’s wellbeing. We live in a contemporary Malawi that every neighbour in Africa and the rest of the world is able to easily overtake on many fronts, including economic, social and environmental. It is already bad enough that we dream of putting into the presidency a 79-year-old to lead till he is 84. Now, add to that tale the potential of youth participation that is entangled with gender!
Dr. Goodall Gondwe, our learned Finance and Development Minister, insinuated that the “presidency is not for babies,” invoking the inexperience of young people, and therefore signalling that Dr. Saulos Chilima cannot govern the country. By the way, this resulted in uproar from adults and “babies” alike. So, in our pretence to advance the interest of Malawians, our political leadership is heavily invested in the belief that the young cannot rule. This cascades down to other occupations where we rarely observe young managers, entrepreneurs and local leaders.
However, as absurd a statement as Dr. Gondwe’s was, it was a true reflection of Malawi’s attitude towards the youth in politics. The youth are seen as being children who have no place in the game, not privy to its benefits, and chased away as children when their parents have company over and want to discuss “grown folk things”. It is now common knowledge that the ‘age debate,’ sparked by Callista Mutharika’s public endorsement of the young(ish) Saulos Chilima over her brother-in-law, is a formidable discourse. As former first lady, this is a big deal. And it has not helped her to keep many of her friends in the Democratic Progressive Party either.
Women, a.k.a. the other half of humanity, are entitled to the totality of human rights just as men. The echo of Hilary Clinton’s tirade about “women’s rights are human rights,” made at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing, continues to resonate in the soul of our legal frameworks in the bid to protect women’s rights. And our constitution has attuned to the feminist movement and its obligations to honour international human rights instruments such as the ICCPR, CEDAW and our own Maputo Protocol, to which it is a signatory so as to systematically address the labelling of women as “second-class” citizens. In its pledge to realize human rights for everyone, it recognizes that women have been left behind and given the short end of the stick.
Yet, despite the existence of the strong and progressive Section 24 of our Constitution, why is political participation of young women, a human right enshrined in the international human rights framework, still considered a rarity in practice? Why is Dr. Gondwe’s assertion a shared opinion by both the young and the old, men and women, leaders and followers alike? And this is not only confined to Malawi. The only elected president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, beat the odds insofar as gender is concerned. However, she did not tip the scales in terms of age. Neither did the appointment of Catherine Samba-Panza in Central African Republic nor the elevation of Joyce Banda in Malawi. It is almost a given that Angela Zachepa or Juliana Lunguzi, notable young Parliamentarians we have had, would not easily make it into the executive, let alone the Presidency.
So, everywhere, young women face systemic and structural barriers to political participation. In this respect, it seems not to matter that the human rights principle of non-discrimination and the very nature of human rights are aimed to ensure the right to participation of young women in politics. The situation fully ignores that young women’s participation will not only increase their voices but will inspire other young women in other trades; will create a more balanced, coherent and peaceful society; and will augur with our raison d'être, in that progress cannot be fully achieved where the other half of humanity does not share in the process and in the benefits from it.
The evidence points to a reality where women’s political participation in Malawi neither succeeds in direct participation – where they can run for office, participate in campaigning, policy formulation or engage in non-governmental politics-oriented work – nor very much in indirect participation, where they can engage in voting. This makes the intersection between youth and gender particularly important in politics as it determines young women’s roles in the political arena such as taking part in shaping of the philosophy of political parties. Instead, young women come off mainly as vocalists of derogatory songs, used as weapons for opposing political interests, but also sadly as those whose bodies can be used to mend men’s voluptuous drives during campaign events.
To level the gender playing field in the political arena, we must pay attention to three underlying issues driving political participation in general: social, economic and legal. On the social front, nothing will deal with the emergence of young women into politics as dealing away with the patriarchy, which grants the undue dominance of men over women. Even today, women are merely seen as quiet and delicate, and hardly through the lens of leadership and decision-making. It is worse for young women, who should be “nice, quiet” girls, not expected to be loud and opinionated as boys. The political platform is defined with this exclusion in its DNA, tilting the bargaining power in favour of men.
Take, for example, campaigns for Student Union positions at Chancellor College, where the patriarchy can be emotionally and physically strenuous for females. Female candidates delivering policy speeches become subjects of objectification, where dress, sexuality and/or looks become instruments of male audiences in the pews of the Great Hall to damage ambitions.
In the economic realm, men have more access to resources than women and therefore always have somewhat of a head start. Direct participation, as a matter of fact, requires access to resources. During campaigns in Malawi, men seamlessly appeal to poor voters by giving hand-outs, as bikes and maize are commonplace hard to come by for many folks. So, the young women will enter politics only if their endowments either match or surpass those of men. Yet, young women must not merely be seen as potential mothers and home-makers, but they must be educated and offered other economic opportunities as men.
Finally, even political party laws and statutes hinder young women’s progression in that they are not structured in a way that gives them adequate space to participate. Thus, the established legal environment must move beyond the accolades and be enforced. And, of course, knowing the hegemonic relationship between customary and formal law, where the former frequently trumps the latter, the social dynamics that I have spoken about must be dealt with if legal reform and enforcement will take effect. The law has to go above and beyond in a patriarchal society, both at national and party levels. These legal frameworks must accommodate and encourage the participation of youth and women in politics through relevant and effective regulation. Affirmative action measures must be put in place to ensure that young women are given equal opportunities to vote, run for office, and participate in other political activities.
With the 2019 elections around the corner, Malawi as a nation, and people as individuals must candidly ponder on young women’s participation in politics. Young women’s political participation is a human rights issue and, if we are to advance, we must acknowledge its links with development.