Starting at an early age, I saw no reason a Malawian woman should be denied the same opportunities as a Malawian man. My mother embodied this principle. She owned and sometimes drove her minibus taxis, an unusual occupation for a woman in Malawi.
I have always been aware of the discrimination women face in Malawi and have experienced some of it myself. For example, as a student at the elite Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, I contested for Student Union President. I had always been a precocious student and had started college at the age of 15. Tradition is held in high regard at Chancellor College, and no woman had ever run for student body president, at least at the time, we could not recall any. I did not win the election, but the sexism I experienced as a candidate was a life-changing experience. When it became clear to the opponents—all of them male—that I had a formidable chance to win, they agreed to all support one of their number who had the best chance of winning against “the girl.”
Going to the Grassroots
After graduation, I decided to work further to support the Young Politicians Union, an organisation of people from her own generation as passionate as I was to invigorate political debate and change in Malawi. It was a practicum to everything I learned in my political Sciences, a mirror to what I experienced in student politics and to my surprise, a sad reflection of state of national political affairs. We believed that if as young people, regardless of our political affiliations, worked together to advocate for youth integration in political party structures as well as groomed each others political leadership abilities, we would make positive alterations to the status quo.
Working with other Women
I worked tirelessly, going to various districts across Malawi to mobilise, train and support young politicians. I met and took keen interest other young women who shared similar aspirations. Most of them had none of the background in university taught political theory that I did. But they were eager to exercise political agency, to speak up and to be counted. Some of these women came to the meetings with nursing babies and little else besides bus fare home. They inspired me and through them I learned a lot about politics at the grassroot structures, the importance of women as a voting constituency as well as the reason women structures in political parties are powerful for political strategies.
One such women is Annis Luka, a subsistence farmer from the Phalombe district in the southern region of the country. When Annis finished secondary school, she could not find a job and was forced to return home to farm with family members. She lives with 12 family members, including her parents, siblings, and a 7-year-old daughter. They grow maize, rice, sugar cane, and groundnuts, but do not earn enough to provide a buffer against the annual hungry season.
While as students, we were able to raise money through events, inviting political leaders, intellectuals, and artists to speak or perform, and count on a paying crowd; women like Annis funds sacrifically contributed what they had- dedicating a share of her maize production, although little to the cause. Our combined efforts, and with support from Konrad Adenauer Foundation, were able to pay the expenses to support the work of the Young Politicians Union.
As the intergovernmental agency Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recommends: “Invest in leadership development and mentoring, especially for young women. Strive to make politics an accessible arena for low-income women and women from rural areas, whose representation has been constrained by the high cost of campaigning.”
Taking it to Radio
To offer more opportunity for interface and dialogue, I created, produced and hosted a weekly live radio programme on politics and citizen engagement for over a year. Several distinguished politicians, young people and the general public via telephone and social media participated in the ‘Young Politicians Forum- Mphamvu kwa Achinyamata’ Programme which still airs on Transworld Radio Malawi, 8 years on.
The Young Politicians Union now exists as a loose network. The remaining members carry on, although without sufficient support as it were with the support of Konrad Adenauer Foundation which now closed offices in Malawi.
This article was first published here. Edits and updates have been made.