From December 2012 to August 2013, we were part of the organising team of the National Gender Conference which has just taken place at Nkopola Lodge in Mangochi from 1st September to 4th September 2013 under the theme – “Celebrating Malawi’s Quest for Gender Equality: Telling Our Own Story, Redefining and Taking Stock”.
The conference was conceptualised and implemented in order to create a gender discourse that is all inclusive and cuts across political and class divide and multidisciplinary in nature. One of the reasons for organising the conference was that we had seen that the Malawi gender agenda space had become colonised and was in the hands of a few and we wanted to ensure that the gender agenda becomes everybody’s issue, once again.
In total 129 participants comprising 87 women and 42 men attended the conference.
On 3rd September, 2012 there was parallel session entitled “Women and Political Participation”. This Session was presented by Dr Ngeyi Kanyongolo and was facilitated by Professor Etta Banda. Part of the discussion hinged on how we as women’s rights champions can support the retention of women in political positions as well as increase their representation in political positions.
Ms Mphatso Jumbe, the Executive Director of MoVE! (an NGO) and a member of the conference organising team, made a contribution to the debate by stating that in efforts to ensure retention of women politicians and fulfil our agenda, women could consider, for example in the case of Mrs Joyce Banda, to vote for her just because she is a woman regardless of how we as the electorate felt about her policies. At this point there was a general dissent to Ms Jumbe’s input through disapproving murmurs but no clear disapproval was made. The parallel session recessed and it was time for coffee break.
As part of the usual coffee break discussion we (Seodi and Jessie) engaged Mphatso Jumbe to clarify the meaning of her input. Mphatso stated to us what she meant by her input and denied that she meant that the head of state should be automatically be voted for by women because she is a woman. We also stated that in our opinion, the fulfilment of the gender agenda does not mean womanhood is not an automatic ticket for votes by women. That sound economic policies that promise or have great potential to improve the lives of poor people especially women; should among other things be the threshold for a guaranteed vote. Dr Ngeyi Kanyongolo joined in the conversation and we debated how the principle of retention of the female candidacy intersects with gender as a conceptual question.
We emphasised that gender and woman should not be reduced to Joyce Banda and elite women but always be read and understood to the benefit of rural illiterate, who are majority of women’s population. That our strategies should not be pivoted on personalities but on the bigger picture of gender and development. At the same time, we also emphasised that ensuring that female representation needs to be done in a way that focuses on women who truly believe and perform the gender agenda.
This conversation lasted about 5 minutes after which, we all proceeded to the next parallel session.
An hour later, Ms Alice Shackleford who is the UN Women Resident Representative and Associate Professor Garton Kamchedzera called us and told us the representatives from the PP machinery and OPC were threatening to leave the conference. They were unhappy because we were disparaging the President Mrs Joyce Banda by saying we would not vote for her in 2014. That they had actually decided to leave the conference in protest to our remarks. That they had through Garton and Alice therefore summoned us to a hearing and as matters stood they were in one of the conference rooms waiting for us. We were vehemently opposed to attending such an indaba as it amounted to a Kangaroo court but Associate Prof Kamchedzera and Ms Shackleford heavily persuaded us to do so.
The meeting had been called by the following people: Mrs Clara Makungwa who is the Presidential Advisor on women affairs and Director of Women in the Peoples Party. Mrs Joyce Nhlema the Chairperson of the Joyce Banda Foundation, Mrs Dorothy Ngoma the Executive Director of the Presidential Safe Motherhood Programme, Professor Etta Banda Member of Parliament and PP Member, Mrs Flora Kaluwire the Head of Presidential initiative on Hunger to lead a protest about our views. In attendance to the said meeting were Associate Professor Garton Kamchedzera, Ms Alice Harding Shackleford, and Representative of the ministry of Gender: Mr Peter Msefula, Ambassador Sophie Kalinde who is the Chair of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, Ms Grace Malera; the Executive Director of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, Ms Bridget Chibwana consultant for UN Women. It was understood that the meeting was summoned by the PP officials and the OPC and the following spoke:
Mrs Clara Makungwa
Mrs Joyce Nhlema
Mrs Dorothy Ngoma
Mrs Flora Kaluwire
Professor Etta Banda
The gist of their issues can be summed up as follows:
1. That they were vexed that we were using the gathering to de-campaign Mrs Joyce Banda by stating that we would not vote for her just because she is a woman.
2. That by engaging Mphatso Jumbe as outlined above we were harassing her and that they felt sorry for her.
3. That we were personalising the issues raised in the conference by bringing the President’s name into it.
4. That we seemed not to like the President very much.
Our response was as follows:
1. That we took great exception to the summoning as it was an affront to our rights and to democracy and that the said gathering amounted to a kangaroo court.
2. That as citizens of the Republic of Malawi and in line with the constitution we have the freedom of expression.
3. That the President Mrs Joyce Banda is not a People’s Party President but that she is OUR President and as such, she is a public institution that can be subject to political or other opinion. We further pointed out that the President is paid by our taxes and that she as Public Servant, she reports to us as citizens.
The meeting ended inconclusively.
The Following is our Position:
1. It is acknowledged that certain groups of human rights defenders can be at particular risk and women human rights defenders are among those at high risk. Women rights defenders are more at risk as they arouse more hostility than their male colleagues because as human rights defenders, they defy cultural, religious or social norms about femininity and the role of women in a particular.
2. As human rights defenders, we speak for the people, the voiceless and those living on the margins of society.
3. We have historically voiced opinions about heads of state, we will not abdicate our human rights defender’s voice because the head of state is a woman and we are women.
4. We are professionals and non-partisan. We have undertaken to use the education that our country gave us to make a difference.
5. We take great exception to the summoning of human rights defenders and citizens to Kangaroo courts as was done to us.
6. That the summoning of human rights defenders, women’s right activists and citizens of Malawi, is an affront to our democracy.
7. We as Malawian citizens have the right to express ourselves as per our constitution as enshrined in section 35: Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression.
8. Just like in any country, there are those who find our views unpalatable. However, it is important to remember that democracy is not for the faint hearted and when we voted for multipartism in 1993, we voted for the right to differ in opinions without subjecting one another to torturous treatment.
9. We stand for the rule of law for the entrenchment of democracy in Malawi and the advancement of women’s rights and the gender agenda.
SEODI WHITE AND JESSIE KABWILA
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