This article has been written in the author's personal capacity.
First, let me congratulate my country and people for the historic landmark Constitutional Court of Malawi (ConCourt) ruling that made headlines on 3 February 2020, a first ever judgement that will go down in our country’s history and law books. The legal process may still continue, but it is not short of unprecedented.
As a gender equality advocate, I feel naturally compelled to say something about how women have made their mark to get us to where we are today. For I am unable to waver the important contributions women have made in the legacy the recent events leave behind.
Before that, there are big-picture issues – principally, they constitute lamentations as any Malawian would do their best – that I cannot ignore.
Despite its many challenges, which vary from hunger, poverty, corruption, tribalism and other befitting tribulations, Malawi’s institutions have yielded the chance to prove to be not only functional but credible. For some who have witnessed the heralding of multi-party politics in Malawi, this decision by the five ConCourt Justices brings back great memories of the 1993 Referendum that ushered in multiparty democracy. Coincidentally, it is the same Constitution that was used by the ConCourt justices to interpret the rules and enforce its decision against the incumbent President, a constitutional lawyer and one of its key drafters.
Malawi has also witnessed gross human rights violations that some believe should be taken to the international criminal court. These human rights violations have led to the resistance of the people towards the current regime and demand for change. One major issue that angered the nation for the past 4 years, leading to the 2019 elections is that of the abductions and killings of persons with albinism, which this current regime failed to curb. In the political campaigns, many people, including the opposition parties, made this their agenda for change, and demanded the end of impunity, for those involved in the crimes.
The country also registered some gender violations towards the election period, many cases of violence against women were reported and not acted upon. The major issue of concern was the conflict between state party machinery (particularly the police) and citizens.
Through this lukewarm response by the state machinery to address these violations, civil society and the Malawi Human Rights Commission took some steps to trigger the redress of gender issues but solutions have still not been found. As I write, the Ombudsman, human rights defenders and the Women Lawyers Association, are among those duty bearers that are, at least, still trying to bring the state to account for these numerous violations. As an observer myself, I have found some positive stories of how gender has played out in the country. It is interesting to note, for example, that the women lawyers, as an entity, are among those that have been so vibrant and active in both the constitutional case and the alleged police rape case of 13 women and 4 girls in Lilongwe. Their role of the Ombudsman and Women lawyers, as watchdogs has earned them the praise than the established law society, which has been seen to be tepid in its efforts to appear non-partisan.
The other interesting aspect of how gender has played out has also been through the efforts of women platforms. The women’s manifesto platform has been vocal in calling out the main duty bearer to act on the violations against women. 2019 brought interesting dynamics too with emergence of the Young Feminist Network (YFN), which is mostly university students. The YFN has played a huge role, particularly, on social media platforms with other platforms like Feministing while Malawian, in calling for accountability and sending shockwaves through their powerful Platforms comprised of other minority groups. The YFN has gone further to establish themselves as an entity and galvanizing support from other African feminist networks.
Again, the youth factor played out in 2019 as Malawian youth took to speaking loudly on political podiums and social media platforms. There is no doubt that this is indeed “Generation Equality,” which demands nothing less than accountability, ending impunity and is claiming a place at the table to make decisions that affect it. I have also observed that women, young women in particular, have been side-lined in decision making forums that require their voices. Take, for example, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), a predominantly male outfit with only one or two women’s faces in its coalition (In their defence, they have lamented this lack of gender). They have often argued that it is women who are reluctant to come forward to join the cause. This is true in part, as we have noted how the defenders have been treated and attacked, to the extent of being labelled a terrorist organisation. This is a major barrier for women of all ages who want to associate with the grouping.
Gender played its cards on the legal front too. So, I turn to the spotlight on women that have played various roles in this political drama.
Despite the dream team of the Elections Case comprizing five amazing judges, only one female judge, Ivy Kamaga, will get to claim the accolades. On the bright side, Ms. Kamanga has become a sensation and role model for many aspiring young women who aspire to sit on the bench someday. With the impending retirement of Justice Jane Ansah, another critical player in the political saga that we have experienced to date, we hope to see more women being appointed to the Supreme Court, which will have no female once she leaves. Furthermore, I applaud one female lawyer, Innocentia Nkhoma Ottober who, out of the 20+ lawyers in the constitutional case, was the sole female litigating on behalf of one political party. She’s shown stamina and resilience in a traditionally male domain. Last but not least, the leadership of the Ombudsman under Martha Chizuma, has also demonstrated that human rights are prioritized during this election period.
In terms of political parties, the gender factor, while seemingly appetizing on paper, has not played out well off the shelf except for one political party that had several women in its line up of leadership. I do believe, however, that this is the most handicapped area and that we can do more as a country to field more women in the various platforms to partake in national matters.
I also strongly believe this country, despite these disparities, has the potential to become a gender-balanced country in national issues if more effort was put in investing in gender equality. The few examples I have cited mean highlight there is room for women to play a part in decision making. What we have seen is tokenism and the lack of an equal playing field for women to engage, contribute and lead in issues that affect us all as citizens.
While our narrative will be largely shaped by the judgement of 3 February 2020 in election matters, I would like to be optimistic about the role and voices of women in all spaces that matter. Making gender equality a reality is the next major shakeup, even in the faith-based space, which will surely shake our ancestors out of their heels if they were to make a sudden comeback. We need to go beyond the status quo, and deliberately. It’s the fuel that will keep Malawi trending as the role model in Africa that we believe yesterday’s decision makes it to be. All of us, including human rights defenders, must capitalise on the gains and drive the message across all intersections that women find themselves in. With social media and tech, the unapologetic youth movement tells us this is more possible than ever.
Can the Warm Heart of Africa do this?