What hinders Malawian women’s full participation in formal, national-level state politics? How can policy makers support the goal of gender equality in Malawi? This article from Gender and Development draws on qualitative research conducted with Malawian female politicians. Constraints on women’s political participation include limited income and education, and gender stereotypes. Women in Malawi are socialised to be followers, not leaders. Gendered expectations among both women and men need to be challenged.
Malawian women lead their communities as democratic representatives and participate in state politics, but only to a limited extent. Contemporary formal state politics is constructed as a masculine domain, and just 13.6 per cent of parliamentary seats are held by women. Strong cultural constraints and belief systems relegate women to non-political roles. According to traditional cultural beliefs, acceptable women’s roles are those in the private sphere, not public life.
Socialisation processes are a key constraint on women’s participation in politics. Girls are treated differently from boys, and the focus of their upbringing is on domestic tasks. This limits time available for education, blunts ambition and lowers self-esteem. In addition, the lack of resources (time, education, training) brought about by poverty is a significant barrier to women entering politics. Women’s economic status is lower than that of men and this holds women back from political leadership. Further findings include:
- Politics is culturally associated with ‘male’ traits of strength, deceit, and fighting.
- Women’s own attitudes are significant; some female politicians believe that women are incapable of evaluating political issues.
- Female politicians face discrimination and ‘dirty tricks’ campaigns from men, including male colleagues.
- Single female politicians are regarded with particular suspicion.
- Simply incorporating women into politics will not guarantee women’s empowerment.
Women’s participation as active citizens and high-ranking politicians has not yet been normalised in Malawi. Women will have to strategically and consciously make their voices heard. Recommendations include the following:
- More effort must be made to challenge underlying attitudes and beliefs about women’s role in society.
- Malawian female politicians should support and campaign for other female leaders. Women leaders need to work together, and inspire other women to move into positions of power.
- Powerful and well-known female politicians could be encouraged to visit schools and talk to girls about their experiences in politics. Schools could run competitions, choosing bright girls with leadership abilities to be mentored by female politicians.